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(AQ) The Galin' War.

 
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5/25/2012 23:15:18   
Sir Nicholas
Member

(Author's Note: Comments go here.)

______________________________________

Prologue: The Guardian Tower, BattleOn. 1094.

A vast plain appeared in his mind's eye, green and lush countryside stretching as far as the eye could see - and all turned to shades and hues of vibrant green and blue of the cloudless sky - and the sun was clear and bright. It filled every section of his body - warm and cold by turns, as though a gentle breeze was flowing through him. Finally he understood that this place wasn't real; rather it was a reflection of his inner self. A glimpse into his own heart.

He was being judged by a power far beyond - and through it all he felt perfectly calm. It seemed as though all fears and thoughts were far away - and there was only the feeling of a warm and loving embrace; like the caress of a beloved friend.

A single voice began singing within his mind as the scenery began to shift - and the plain gradually faded away until it was replaced with a light so bright he nearly shut his eyes against it. The voice was joined by another, and another, until the music had become like a silvery chorus.

A weaker mind might be tempted to stay in that blissful state - but he was a paladin. He knew that his salvation was both far off and very near. Honed by years of training and indoctrination, he could not accept that eternal reward just yet. Although the connection would remain - it was not his time to embrace Paradise.

He was Sir Nicholas Lightbearer, and his duty was not yet fulfilled.
____________________________________

The paladin opened his eyes slowly as he awoke from his dream, and he blinked several times to adjust to the rapid change in lighting. He rose from his bed and yawned while stretching his arms in a wide gesture. Beside him, the clock read 10:02AM - and all around were the bunks of his brother-guardians.

It was part of Nicholas' own traditions to rise early - as it kept the mind sharp and alert, and it allowed more time for exercise and daily prayers. He shrugged his shoulders as he slid from his bedside and made for the door. Before leaving the dorm, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and looked at his reflection - studying the man that he'd become.

He was very tall, and his shoulders were broad and gave way to muscular arms and a well built physique. Scars crisscrossed his wrists and forearms from years of training and constant battle - and the feel of armor plates overlapping on his skin. The rest of his body was covered by a light grey tunic that covered the wealth of the other scars he'd obtained in his long years. His complexion was tanned and hardened, rugged features. His dark brown hair was long and fixed into a single braid that hung down his back. His eyes were narrow and a shade of brown that looked almost gold in the morning sun. Although his appearance suggested a man of his early thirties, in truth he was deceptively youthful for a man that had served the Order for the greater part of a decade.

He had risen to the rank of Master - and had led troops on countless battlefields since that time. All the while he participated in missions across Lore, conquering cities, destroying legions of the undead, mediating disputes, healing or providing wisdom wherever it was needed. A paladin's duty was not limited to the battlefield alone. As a knightly brotherhood - they were sworn to defend the innocent and spread the message of enlightenment.


From the next room, the sound of the clashing of metal greeted him - along with the refreshing smell of fresh cut grass. The sound echoed across the walls, past the courtyard where the pages trained - and where a group of initiates fought a practice duel with dull swords. They were surrounded by larger warriors, similarly dressed in robes and carrying swords of dark iron.

In the middle of the circle, both pages were stripped down to the waist - fighting a sparring match so rapid and intense their movements were blurred. The brothers surrounding them were laughing and cheering their approval or disproval of each initiate as he ducked and wove around his opponent - trying to break his guard.

Nicholas only smiled as he watched the two pages fight. They were new recruits, he guessed - and they were still learning the ropes when it came to combat. The older page smirked as his opponent lunged forward and attempted a wide crescent stroke. He spun round once, easily dodging the blow and simultaneously delivering a punch to the younger man's solar plexus.

The energy of the blow was absorbed as the younger sidestepped, bringing around his left leg in a roundhouse kick to his opponent's exposed ribcage. The older had foreseen this, and used his free arm to latch onto his opponent by the ankle. With that, he twisted to the side and forced his opponent to the ground, finishing the fight by pinning him with one foot.

"That my students, is how we all should fight." Said the instructor, a senior Paladin by the name of Balledor, who was a close personal friend of Nicholas'.

A short round of applause followed and the older page helped his defeated adversary to his feet. Both brothers disappeared into the nearest doorway, probably to take a break and cleanse their bodies of sweat.

Nicholas walked forward with his arms folded across his chest, and the initiates surrounding Balledor stood at attention at the presence of another senior brother.

"Brother Captain Balledor." He said, grinning. "It seems that acting the part of a teacher is treating you well."

Balledor returned the smile and wrapped his arm around Nicholas' broad shoulder, and his own rugged features were tense. Despite this his tone was remarkably relaxed.

"Ah brother. Training has never been better." He said, gesturing to his students, who had returned to their bouts with renewed zeal. "I sometimes wish you would join us here in the arena; show the initiates what a true paladin fights like."

Nicholas expression turned sheepish at the unexpected praise.

"Well, teaching has never been my strongpoint." He admitted. "Besides, the old man needs me out on the field. I think that I much prefer the life of an elite soldier compared to drilling instructions into initiates' heads."

Balledor laughed. His rich voice was hearty and full of life, in contrast to the grey locks of hair and the trimmed goatee, he remained one of the more zealous members of the Order.

"I regrettably have a fulltime job, which I recall you," he jabbed Nicholas in the ribs at that comment. "Happened to recommend for me."

It was true. Although he was well advanced in age, Balledor's fighting spirit had lost none of its potency, and his skills were as sharp as ever. Very few, save Nicholas, the Grand Master, and Halenro, could hope to best him in a one-on-one duel. Despite this, Nicholas had often wondered if the years of combat had tired the older man, and had vouched for him when the position of trainer of initiates became available. A rank which held distinction - but was not well suited to one that had spent the greater part of his life on the battlefield.

The weathered paladin's expression turned serious. "I just heard a disturbing rumor from the men." He said, leaning in as both he and Nicholas began to walk away from the still training pages. "They say that there might be a war brewing. All kinds of troubling signs; like entire villages disappearing overnight. The people are afraid. They think the undead might be coming out of Darkovia for the first time in ten years to invade the surrounding lands."

Nicholas nodded. Darkovia had long been a place of war and the Order was hard-pressed into defending that region. If it meant another war, the paladin's numbers couldn't take it. Although they were among the very best undead fighters on Lore, the fact remained there simply weren't enough of them to fight back an army of the walking dead. A single knight from the Order could kill a hundred or more of the beasts, but it would do little if they were beset by seemingly endless waves of the things.

"Let us pray that it doesn't come to that, old friend." Said Nicholas. "Until then, I should be off. There's a briefing sermon scheduled for noon, and if I'm late again - the Old Man will have my head."

Balledor nodded, then offered his hand in salute to his oldest friend. Nicholas took it gratefully, and smiled as he watched Balledor return to his students - tending to them like a shepherd to his flock.

The older paladin was always something of a mentor figure to the younger warriors in the Order, he mused. Even if he didn't readily admit it, the younger generations looked up to him as a role model. Such a life befitted Balledor, and he was sure that the older man might agree to anything if the Grand Master requested it.

Shrugging slightly, Nicholas was off to the refectory. Despite what he'd said, the briefing sermon could wait. After all, even the greatest of paladins couldn't fight on an empty stomach.
____________________________________

"What do we know about the Orcs of Augerthorne?" Nicholas asked as he helped himself to another glass of wine. "Have they ever displayed any signs of aggression before? Besides the obvious I mean."

"Not much." Said the Grand Master, Artix Von Krieger, leaning back in his chair.

Surrounding them were the other Masters of the various Chapters of the Order. Among them were familiar faces: Sanctus, Halenro, Janosso, Coerusaveri, and of course Nicholas himself. They had gathered to discuss a possible threat from the south by the Orcs of Augerthorne, a brutish and warlike race of greenskins. They had united under a general named Bour - and it was rumored they had developed some kind of new and secret weapon.

Sage Uldor was present for the meeting, for he was the one that had first brought news of this weapon to the Order. Throughout most of the meeting, it had largely been confined to the sharing of intelligence and the occasional report of the fronts of distant battlefields.

"We've always known the greenskins to be a bellicose race. Most probably, this General Bour rose to power by defeating all opposition." Said Halenro. "We've seen it countless times before. Surely this new weapon must be something he procured from one of his conquests."

It wouldn't have come as a surprise - as the Orcs had a fascination for any kind of weapon. What concerned the Order was how and why he'd come up with an army of the greenskinned beasts in so short a time. Naturally, they were a race steeped in war - and only the strongest of their hordes could survive in what many considered a brutish society. The trouble therin lay that the Orcs had long kept to themselves in their lands to the south - where their tribes often warred with each other instead of with their neighbors.

"That's a strong possibility." Said Janosso softly. "We know little of the Orc psychology, but what information we have suggests these attacks are a little more than their usual random, sporadic violence."

There were murmurs among the councilors.

"That would mean that someone is manipulating the greenskins." Pointed out Halenro. "Most likely the same source that he gained this new weapon from. I understand it's not of Orc design to begin with."

Uldor nodded. "I have seen it. This weapon is called a 'Death Roller' and it is of Drakel design."

They all knew what this meant. The lizard-folk known as Drakel had long been a mysterious, exotic race. Though it was exceedingly rare that they ever left their domed cities, in recent years - the Drakel had attacked many neighboring towns, for what purpose no one could guess. At one point they had even managed to gather a rare metal - a substance which the long lost civilization of Talados had been known for, before its destruction from the Monster Carnax.

"But for what purpose would the Drakel supply an Orc General with weapons?" Asked Janosso. "It doesn't make sense. They above all should know that trying to bribe Orcs with weaponry is the same as giving a burglar a gun and asking him not to kill you with it."

"I agree." Said Nicholas, interjecting at last. "This Orc General could change the state of affairs of our world. He might end up prolonging our crisis. Our numbers were dwindling before - and now this?" He rose from his seat to emphasise his point. "This must be dealt with!"

Artix looked on, although inwardly impressed by the show of bravado on part of his former apprentice, he was clearly deep in thought. The years had been kind to him, both in experience and in his looks - and gone were the days when he'd recklessly charge into dangerous situations. The Grand Master contemplated each option carefully in his mind, but was silent while the council debated amongst themselves.

It was rare that they were ever at an impasse, but there were some voices among them that advocated to watch and wait - while others, Nicholas and Halenro most prominent declared they should fight. The furious exchange continued for several minutes - until finally - Artix held up his hand, calling for silence.

The other members of the council were quieted and held their collective breath.

"What do you propose we do then, Lord Nicholas?" He asked. "I don't suppose you're suggesting that we meet the Orcs head on? A direct confrontation would attract more of the beasts."

Nicholas grinned, and all knew what this meant. That was exactly what he was intending. Crippling the Orc General wouldn't be enough - and in order to stabilize the region, the entire horde had to be destroyed. A task that would be much more easily accomplished if the beasts were at each other's throats.

"What I propose Grand Master is that we dispatch a small force, just enough to challenge battle against Bour. I shall lead the expedition myself - with General Ajax and Lord Galanoth. Bour and his warband will be destroyed, one way or another. The only question remaining is, who among you disagrees?"

Not a single hand was raised.

"Perfect." Said Nicholas, his grin widening. "Now for a strategy."
__________________________________

The first and last glimpse of an incoming danger from the sky was the shadow on the ground, followed by a sharp whistle, and the very last thing the group of Orcs saw was a fiery ball that exploded against the ground - while the shrapnel spread out in all directions, as lethal as flachettes, cutting several of the greenskins to bloody pieces.

The remaining few were dazed and could not raise their weapons in time to defend themselves against the next attack - this time from on the ground, as a mounted unit charged from behind the nearest cluster of trees and mowed them down with swords and long spears. These were special Dragoons, and they excelled in mobile combat, which the greenskins could not hope to defend against without ranged weaponry.

The Dragoons vanished almost as quickly as they came - and for a moment there was only an eerie stillness.

And then, through the smoke marched a solid infantry square - squads of footmen, organized into units of ten, armed with halberds - attacked the enemy whilst under cover fire from archers. The troops in the front line were the most heavily armored, and their shields were interlocked into a phalanx as they battered against the disorganized greenskin forces.

Unruly mobs clashed with disciplined soldiers. The Order had requisitioned a small force of Guardians and adventurers for this mission - but they were the elite, and they could more than handle a skirmish. The clashing of metal and the shouting of battle cries was sure to attract more of the greenskins - just as the plan entailed.

"Second squad, advance!" Called the commanding officer of the infantry regiment, a colonel by the name of Tyrone. "Third squad, release arrows! Lay down suppressing fire!"

Tyrone watched as arrows whizzed through the human lines, occasionally spearing eyes or throats - but the majority hit on the body, for that was the center mass; hardest to miss. Any ranged support that could be offered was welcome - and when the humans had brought out their own secret weapon; dwarf built grenades and cannons - the tide quickly began to turn.

More of the Orcs charged in to close the gap between their forces as the last of their comrades were cut down - and sure enough, they too were blasted into pulp by the human's weaponry. A third mob of creatures repeated the process - climbing over the corpse mounds of their own dead, armed with primitive axes and spears and crude guns. When they came too close for fire support, Tyrone drew his sword and immediately set about hacking away at the beasts, slicing off heads and removing limbs with the well placed strokes of a veteran.

Troops from the infantry reserve were marching from the west to guard their flanks. At their head was Sir Nicholas, dressed in full battle armor and waving his sword around as a makeshift standard. The greenskins instinctively recognized that the tall warrior was the leader of the human forces - and some peeled off from the assault to try to bring him down, but the paladin cut apart all attackers or trampled their corpses beneath his horse's hooves.

Following him closely behind were Janosso and Halenro, wielding their sword and axe respectively, wading through the battlefield and intoning prayers of righteous wrath as they finished off any remaining foes.

Tyrone could already see the angry malice in red eyes, smell the toxic sweat and blood of the Orcs as they rumbled forward in greater numbers than before.

"For the Light!" He shouted, brandishing his sword in one hand and a combat knife in the other - charging into battle.

< Message edited by Sir Nicholas -- 8/27/2012 11:20:38 >
AQ  Post #: 1
5/28/2012 14:51:27   
Sir Nicholas
Member

Chapter 1: The Augerthorne Campaign.
__________________________________

By the time that noon had passed, hundreds of Orcs had fallen and the remainder of the warband was in full retreat. At the very least, the paladins had bought a reprieve, and now their serfs were busy cleansing the dead from the field. Both their own, and the enemy's. The bodies of all slain Orcs were simply being piled on top of each other into one massive mound - and some of the mages that accompanied the army were already beginning to cast fireball spells that set portions of it ablaze. In this part of the world, the scent of corpses might attract dangerous predators, and the paladins had neither the time nor the tools to bury so many.

Thus it became necessary to scavenge all available weapons and armor from the field, and although it was a grueling task, the men in the field did their duty without question.

Colonel Tyrone was standing near the growing pile of carcasses - watching his men and occasionally directing wayward troops to take care of the logistic tasks that came with such a huge operation. His arms were folded across his chest and his sword had been planted blade first into the ground beside him. To the troops, he appeared deep in thought - and only the occasional swaying of his cape in the wind was any indication that he was not a statue.

Tyrone was not a very large man, but he was powerfully built - and his hair was long and dark and caught attention easily, as did the black eyepatch that concealed his empty socket on the right side. He'd lost his right eye in combat many years ago - during the campaign against the forces of Safiria in the Blood War.

In his youth, Tyrone had been employed as a mercenary before he joined with the Paladin Order. Although he was not one of the Light-blessed warriors himself, his physical condition was at its prime, and his fighting skills were phenomenal. He'd battled against every major threat that the world could throw at him, and survived to fight again. And if the scars on his lower lip and the countless other fading injuries on his body were any indication, he was clearly a cut above even the greatest of adventurers.

For now he contented himself as a private contractor in service to the Order. It was good money, and he always had plentiful chances to engage in battle. Tyrone had in fact descended from a long line of fighters - and he'd prided himself on his skills, both as a master swordsman and as a tactician. And so it was that he enjoyed the hard life of a soldier - the rush and euphoria that came from a straight up battle had excited him greatly.

This, he thought, was war for its own sake.

"Colonel, sir." Said a fresh young trooper as he saluted crisply and stood at attention before him. "We've completed our sweep of the area and can find no more Orcs."

"Very good soldier." Tyrone replied, flashing the trooper a rare, genuine smile. "Tell your squad to be ready to march within the hour, and set a watch on the surround. I want our forces to be ready before the greenskins attack again."

"Yes sir."

As the younger soldier scurried off on his assignment, Tyrone looked out over the growing pile of corpses and nodded his satisfaction. It was a rare moment to himself, and although he was at heart a fighter, he secretly enjoyed those few quiet moments to contemplate the direction of his life. He was thirty five years old and had already served with distinction in no less than three major wars. He'd created a private army from the small fortunes that he charged for the high price of his services - and he'd even become a renowned warrior with a reputation as a strict, no-nonsense leader that would always get the job done.

Increasingly though, he began to wonder what it was all for. The battles had never lost their thrill - but he'd become slightly bored with slaughtering every enemy in his path.

Tyrone fished into his pocket and pulled out a toothpick. It had been over two years since he'd quit smoking and so instead he'd taken to chewing on toothpicks, and this was a rare moment where he could truly relax. He and his men had fought hard - and killed far more their share of Orcs. As he began to chew at the tip he briefly looked around to see that his troops were completing their tasks and were starting to mingle about with each other rather than set up guard positions and patrols.

The colonel turned his attention back towards the skies, and he looked on as he continued to nibble at the edge of the tiny wooden stick. The gentle prodding of the sharp edge of the toothpick reminded him - and the taste he recognized as from the rich and fertile soil of his homeland in Willow Creek. For a moment he recalled the old days on the farm, when he was just a country bumpkin whose only concern was to till the earth until nature's bounty rewarded him with plentiful crops. That was in the days before he'd become a mercenary - before he'd picked up his first sword even.

Then came the invasion of the Dwakels - their retaliation after the incident involving the cursed werewolves was naturally inevitable. The tribe had based itself in the hills near the town and had coexisted peacefully with the villagers for many years, until of course there was strange tales of monstrous creatures mauling the local livestock. Many had died when the Guardians dispatched agents to the town to investigate. Tyrone had joined them, and had participated in the battle to reclaim the town from the lizard folk.

It was after this affair that he'd become a Guardian himself. And this all was almost ten years ago.

Tyrone flicked the toothpick onto the ground. It would seem unbecoming of him if he were to appear to be slacking off in a crucial moment, especially if he hoped to be allowed to engage the greenskins further. No doubt the beasts were already preparing for a counterstrike. The tenacious creatures never turned away from a fight - and if they ever retreated, it was only to regroup and return in greater numbers.

There was news that they were to be reinforced soon, and it had filled everyone with excitement at the prospect of having another force join up with them, especially after today's hard fighting.

Well, not everyone.

Tyrone felt his mood turn dark as the thought of the losses they'd suffered already popped into his mind. The greenskins had claimed a mighty tally of his troops - good men that he'd served with for years. Dozens of them had died. Many of them were combat veterans like himself - and they were simply left in the mud until they could be given a proper sendoff by their priests.


The sound of trotting hoofsteps made him lose his train of thought. He turned and was greeted by a much welcome sight. Dozens of warriors, armored in plated sets that resembled Dragon's skin and bones - and carrying impressive swords. At their head was a single warrior that stood many times larger and more powerfully built than his brothers. His armor was cracked and bore the scars of many battles. His cape was ripped and torn in many places, and it blew impressively in the wind, making him seem all the larger and more impressive.

"I am Galanoth, Grandmaster of the Dragonslayers." He said, saluting. "Status?"

"It is an honor My Lord Dragonslayer. I am Colonel Tyrone of the Guardian Third Regiment. We have cleansed this area of greenskins, and we are currently preparing to burn the bodies of all slain Orcs."


"Very good Colonel. We are here to reinforce your regiment in preparation for meeting the orcs and their dragon allies." Galanoth said, dismounting. He was followed by his men - who eagerly drew their swords. "We have received intelligence that a Lord Nicholas is leading this operation."

"Yes My Lord. He is currently away on a hunting trip, he intends to destroy several Orc encampments before the greenskins can attack again."

_______________________________________


Nicholas and his troops had tracked the greenskins for just shy of half a mile. The remaining beasts had left an easy trail to follow amidst the stomped grass and ruined landscape. Orcs on the run were just as easy to find as they were on the advance, Nicholas thought as he knelt to the ground to inspect a series of footsteps in the mud. They were fresh - and they'd been heavily covered by what appeared to be hundreds of other tracks.

Around, his men were busy training their crossbows for advance recon and sniper support if the situation warranted. Taking out the larger creatures first would disrupt the horde - and it would eliminate another potential threat, making their job easier. The problem therein lay that the greenskins were terribly unpredictable in combat - and they relied on instinct rather than logic on the battlefield. It made it all but impossible to predict their movements - and if one of the beasts' leaders was silenced, the others might well replace it.

His trusted second in command, a Lycan by the name of Ajax was standing nearby. He'd volunteered to lead the scout division as they went hunting, stalking the smaller concentration of the greenskins and dispatching large numbers of the beasts.

One of their scouts came up and whispered something in his second's ear, saluted, then was off to continue the search.

"Sir. We've word that Galanoth and his forces have just arrived." Said Ajax. His voice was hushed tone so that any lurking foes might not hear him, but his gravelly tone and broad throat made it difficult for him to truly mask his words.

Nicholas nodded. "Their arrival was well timed old friend. They will be useful allies in driving off the dragons the Orcs have enslaved for their war."

"What are your orders, sir?"

"We will contain the threat here in the forests while our allies deal with the enemy in the front. We will at least buy some time by eradicating more of these filthy creatures. Destroy each and every one of them, lest their taint spread, and concentrate all of your fire on bringing down the largest of the beasts."

Ajax nodded, signaled his men up and hurried off into the forest to add a few more kills to his daily tally.

___________________________________

This is truly war for its own sake Tyrone thought as he watched the battle unfold before him. Before the Orcs could renew their attack, he and Galanoth had moved their command post to the top of an embankment that overlooked the battlefield. Below was a narrow enclosure where they had chosen to fight. It was part of a trail that led up to the top of the large hill where he and the Dragonslayer now stood. Since the Orcs excelled in close combat, he was sure that the battle would amount to the terrain - and so he'd pulled his men back to this location to concentrate their defense.

It made it impossible for the Orcs to simply flank around them, for the rest of the enclosure was steep hills and wooded areas. His troops had also constructed barricades to slow their progress, along with a few redoubts, pits filled with barbed wire and other such hazards to impede the greenskin charge. Near the center of the enclosure were two lines of infantry, armed with repeating rifles.

The greenskins had taken the bait and simply charged headlong into the trap. The brutish creatures had thought simply to try to scale the nearly vertical hill, but when that proved impossible - they opted instead for a frontal assault. Hundreds of them were redirected onto the trail that led into the human's killing zone, and only a few could actually move across at a time, lest they end up pushing each other off and be sent tumbling back down the hills.

This worked to the human's advantage, for those orcs that did manage to make it past their initial defenses were simply gunned down, or killed by their own brethren as they stomped over the corpse mounds of their fallen in a further attempt to engage the enemy. Although many had died in the attack, the horde was too large and powerful to be stopped so easily - and so the greenskins had continued their push, attempting to break the barricades and hack at the soldiers still shooting them from within.

When it became apparent that the greenskins were going to succeed, Tyrone turned to Galanoth, his one good eye questioning. Silently, the Dragonslayer nodded, and it was with a sense of satisfaction that Tyrone had not felt in years that he ordered his men to withdraw for the next phase of the plan. The troops simply stopped what they were doing and fell back to the next line with their guns to set up a new defensive position.

Taking advantage of this, the Orcs renewed their charge - this time succeeding in breaking the walls into splinters. In their fury of bloodlust, they had failed to notice that just beneath their feet, there were strange wires connecting to the command post overlooking the battlefield. Doubtful they would care, if they actually did take notice, until it was far too late.

Tyrone reached into his pocket, pulled out a detonator, and flipped the switch.

It was like a fireworks display - but instead of exploding rockets and sparklers, there were chunks of greenskins raining down on him and his men as a massive explosion tore into the side of the mountain. The greenskins were further thrown back - hundreds of them thrown off the side, screaming to their doom, while others were turned to mush by the shrapnel that splintered out in all directions. More still were killed by the next wave that charged through, simply ignoring the cries of their wounded and continuing on - oblivious to their losses, even in light of the crude trick.

The filthy barbarians were relentless. But nevertheless, the infantry lines were ready for whatever they could throw at them. That was of course until the first of the dragons began to appear in the sky. At first they thought it was but a passing swarm of Hybees - not unusual for this part of the world, but upon closer examination, it was in fact a horde of fliers, almost as large as the still attacking greenskin mobs.

Red Dragons. They were among the most common of the draconic, and they were originally born to the same clan as mighty Akriloth himself. These it seemed had been broken and made to serve the Orcs, for attached to their necks were spiked collars that appeared to be painfully grafted onto their flesh and bone.

"It's time." Said Tyrone, turning to his companion, Galanoth, who nodded. The Dragonslayer drew his sword from the scabbard at his belt - and the blade glowed in anticipation.

"Brothers! Let us destroy these dragons!" He yelled - raising the blade high into the sky to signal his own troops. Behind them, there came a great cheer. From within the camp, ballistas and specially armed projectile launchers with long ropes attached, were wheeled up onto the side of the cliff face and aimed at the nearest swarm.

"Open fire!" Shouted Galanoth, swinging his sword outwards to signal the attack.

The first volley brought down several of the red dragons, and it took two or three strong men pulling at the ropes to keep them from escaping - but it did the trick. The air was alive with the thrum of battle, and soon the flight of dozens of arrows - as the Dragonslayers sent showers of arrows at the nearest targets. Galanoth himself had picked up a crossbow, aimed and fired. The first shot scored a direct hit into the eye of one of the red beasts, and it shrieked in pain before it tumbled to the earth with thunderous impact, brought down by the dozens of wounds across its body.

Galanoth's brothers drew their swords and spears and immediately set about hacking at the fallen creature's body. The Dragon reared back its head to defiantly scream towards the heavens, then blew a column of smoke and flame from within its mouth - intending to kill at least some of its attackers before it died. The flames merely passed over the Dragonslayer's armor, for they had been tempered and set to withstand the inferno - and it was if they felt no pain at all that they continued their attack against the fallen beast.

Galanoth drew back his sword and with the utmost ease, ignoring the thrashing claws and jets of flame, proceeded to remove the dragon's head with a single, well placed stroke.

The others took the hint and immediately turned about - and likewise, the greenskins stopped what they were doing and scrambled over each other in a hasty attempt to retreat, as though answering a distant call.

The troops surrounding Tyrone cheered as they watched the Orcs trip over themselves in their attempt to escape - and many of the colonel's troops fired celebratory shots at the fleeing creatures, killing a great many more of them.

"It's almost over." Said Tyrone, sighing with relief. He had lost several men to the charge, despite the greenskin's failure - and he was sure that some more were maimed and wounded by the enemy's dragon attack - but at least they had come through this skirmish remarkably unscathed.

"No it's not." Said Galanoth, wiping his sword clean of dragon's blood with the cape on his back. "We are not finished here until every one of the orcs and their dragons have been destroyed. We need to kill the Warlord, or else they will simply return with greater numbers. What we faced here was probably only a fraction of their total forces."

Tyrone nodded slowly, and then reached within his tunic and pulled out a telescope. With his one good eye looking through at the horizon, he could clearly make out the telltale signs of fires burning somewhere across the forests to the east and to the south. At a guess, Lord Nicholas and his troops had found what they were looking for.

"We should get going as soon as we're ready." He said, folding the telescope. "If what you say is true Dragonslayer; we're in for one wild night."



< Message edited by Sir Nicholas -- 7/10/2012 18:18:59 >
AQ  Post #: 2
5/29/2012 5:47:45   
Sir Nicholas
Member

Chapter 2: Orc Bane.
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Nicholas and Ajax had discovered the first of the Orc encampments with surprising ease. They had cleared out several already, dispatching large numbers of the greenskins and destroying every weapon, stockpile and war material that they could find. When it was over, they searched the bodies - hoping to find General Bour's among them, but there was no such luck. Nevertheless, they pushed on and continued the purging, destroying each stronghold and wiping out every Orc in their path.

It might have been after their tenth victory, or their hundredth - that they found any indication of progress. For a strange set of tracks had been discovered leading away from the battle site, heading north.

"Ajax, what can you make of this?" Nicholas asked, kneeling down beside the tracks. His fellow lycan walked over and took a spot beside him, inspecting it.

"I can definitely say these were not made by Orc footsteps." He pointed out. "And it clearly shows that something very big and heavy was moved - probably it had a crew of about three or four greenskins. Maybe this was the weapon that Uldor spoke of. If what he told us is the truth, it must be a device of great destructive power."

"I was thinking the same, old friend." Said Nicholas. And he smiled, putting a hand on Ajax's shoulder. "Would that you had been a ranger, Ajax - we'd probably have long ago hunted down and destroyed the last of the greenskins in record time."

Ajax returned the grin. "I reckon that I'm right where I'm supposed to be, sir. Besides, that's why I've stayed with you all these years. We're partners, you and I. We share each other's glories. All the pay and praise would get old very quickly if I were to have it all to myself."

Both men chuckled to themselves, and they felt at ease despite the situation. They were after all, childhood friends. Nicholas had met Ajax a long time ago, in those hard years in the lands to the west, when he was knee high to a Moglin. Since that time, they were the best of friends, and they fought together on countless occasions.

"Well, when do we get to kill some more Orcs?" Ajax asked, tilting his head to the side. "No doubt the boys are eager to add more to their total score."

Ajax had long offered the troops under his command rewards and glory to those fighters that could confirm the most kills, and some of them took this practice to heart - turning it into a contest. Although the Paladin's discouraged such a practice, Ajax was not part of the Order, but a regular soldier. Albeit an elite one.

"They will get their chance soon enough, Ajax. Right now we have a mechanical monstrosity out on the loose - and I say its about time that somebody ripped it apart and sold it for scrap."
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They did not say much else as they stalked through the woods, under the shadow of the trees - the human forces had traded in their armor for robes of hues of brown and green so as to blend in with the local foilage, giving them a measure of stealth, perfect for catching the Orcs with their trousers down.

All of them except Nicholas of course, who wore his traditional battle armor. He was a paladin after all, and such cloak and dagger tactics were not well suited to his taste. This carried an additional benefit though, as it would draw attention away from his men in the possibility they were exposed. A fully armored giant of a man carrying a two handed sword would make for a much easier target than an enemy that could slip in and out of the forest with virtual impunity.

"I can sense something very unpleasant in this forest, sir." Said Ajax, almost to himself.

"Besides us you mean?" Nicholas answered, grinning.

"I mean, we've come across large caches of weapons and supplies in every camp we've destroyed." Said Ajax, ignoring the joke. "Where could the greenskins have gotten their hands on so much quality hardware? This far away from civilization doesn't strike me as likely they'd be able to buy them. And of course, they're too stupid to figure out how to make anything beyond axes and swords."

"Perhaps the Drakel were the ones supplying them with weaponry." Nicholas offered. "Although that strikes me as unlikely. From what I've seen, I'd say the Orcs probably didn't...'acquire' this Death Roller device under the circumstances we'd initially believed."

Ajax nodded slowly, but said nothing else. He trained the rifle he'd brought with him and double checked the cartrage and the firing mechanism, making sure that it functioned properly. It wouldn't do any good to have his weapon jam in the middle of a firefight - especially when this mission called for stealth and ranged combat.

Nicholas held up his hand, signaling the troops to halt and they obeyed, freezing right in their tracks. When they held still, it was as if they had become part of the forest itself, invisible even to the paladin's trained eyes.

Turning around the edge of a lush sweet-fruit tree, the paladin carefully scanned the surroundings. His wolf-like senses made him a natural hunter, but his skills in that department were slightly lacking from disuse. He was a soldier primarily, and fighting shadow wars and stalking after prey did not come as naturally as it should have for a trained killer. But then, Nicholas was a walking contradiction - a Lycan, welcomed into human society, and a paladin at that.

"What is it?" Asked one of his sergeants in a hushed tone. "Do you see something?"

Slowly, the paladin shook his head. "No. That is why I am suspicious."

The sound of rustling leaves instinctively caused him to grab the handle of his sword in the scabbard at his belt, but he made no effort to draw it. From somewhere nearby, he could make out the familiar signal that the rangers used to call each other - imitating a sirenbird's song.

Nicholas signaled his men to move forward, and walked out through a pair of cedar trees and out into an open clearing. All that waited to greet him was another Orc camp, but what registered as truly odd was that the entire place was completely silent. A dozen or so Orcs had occupied this place it seemed, and every one of them was dead - their corpses gathered into a small pile and set ablaze. The stench of burning greenskin tickled his nostrels and made him want to vomit.

Several of his men followed him through, and a pair of them remained behind inside their cover to offer fire support in the event they were attacked. Stunned faces looked down at the destruction - seeing the bodies and how every building was almost completely untouched. The greenskin's camp was just a poorly constructed shanty town built from pieces of scrap metal, wooden boards and more nails than one could shake a flail at, but what struck all as unusual was the manner in which the inhabitants had been killed.

Although the greenskins often turned on each other after battle, or when there was no battle to be fought, it was rare that they ever destroyed each other - and never did any of them leave at least some trail of destruction.

"What in the name of Loritha did this?" Asked one of his men. "It looks like they were just....ripped to pieces by some kind of gunfire."

Upon closer examination of one of the bodies, Nicholas realized the man was right; all of the greenskins had hundreds of tiny wounds bored into their skin - like dozens of knives had repeatedly stabbed and slashed at their bodies until they simply bled out.

The nature of their demise was curious enough, but the fact remained clear that this was a carefully planned, executed and thoroughly completed job. Even a squad of fully trained Krovesport Assassins could not have done it better.

"It's strange enough that the Orcs are getting weapons from some unknown benefactor, but now it seems someone desperately wants them dead." Nicholas said as he rubbed his chin, thinking.

"Sir." Said Ajax's voice from somewhere nearby. "You might want to come and take a look at this."

Nicholas followed the sound of his old friend's voice, directly into what appeared to be the Orc Warlord's tent; a larger, more grandoise and lavishly decorated piece that stuck out like a sore thumb - and was noticeably cleaner and more sturdily built than the others.

Inside, Ajax was standing with his eyes trained on a map on the wall. On it were several important towns, cities and other civilised areas in the region - with crudely drawn arrows pointing at them. Some of the lesser places, mostly farms and villages, were scratched out with an 'X' in red marker. What caught Nicholas' eye however was the largest arrow with a circle drawn around the target area.

It was BattleOn.
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Tyrone and his dragonslayer allies had taken the fight directly to the heart of the Orc horde. The Colonel had the foresight to post advance scouts to gather intelligence before they struck - and although he was slightly concerned that his ally Galanoth might have disapproved of such tactics, he was sure that the Dragonslayer would thank him when he avoided having his bones chewed up by a hungry Orc.

They had followed the trail of the greenskin mob until they had reached what appeared to be their primary stronghold. With Lord Nicholas and his hunter team eradicating the lesser ones out there in the countryside - this would be an easy task. All that was left was to destroy the Warlord and his clan.

Unfortunately, the Orcs were not going to make things so simple.

They had been harassed continuously by Blaster Orcs armed with flamethrowers - and several times, the crazed mobs had charged directly into their lines, only to allow their crude weapons to explode right in the middle of the formation. Trained sharpshooters managed to kill the majority of the greenskins with little difficulty, but the accursed beasts kept coming, and even the best trained soldiers couldn't hold before such an onslaught forever. They were taking too many losses, and when they encountered the actual horde - they might be woefully undermanned for such a fight.

Several times, Tyrone had thanked the heavens for the Dragonslayer's intervening, as their armor could well take a beating and even be attuned to absorb the flames from the explosions without harm. When the greenskin horde had realized their tactics were steadily being overcome and they were running out of Blasters, they opted instead for a more conventional form of attack - and opened fire with their primitive guns.

The Orcs sent volleys of arrows at the attackers, but every shot bounced off their armor or was absorbed by their shields. They threw rocks and spears - but the mages accompanying the humans had erected a shield around their forces, protecting them from all ranged attacks. When this failed, the Orcs drew their weapons and charged to engage the attackers at close range.

Tyrone felt a rush of satisfaction as he sliced apart one such greenskin, armed with a cleaver that attempted to decapitate him. Instead, Tyrone parried the creature's assault and struck low at his knees - feeling his sword slice through with the ease a knife would through butter. The creature fell to the ground and was reduced to trying to grab at his leg's in a last ditch form of attack - but it was easy to finish off the beast by removing its head with another stroke from his blade.

The body fell stiff and silent and did not move again.

Around, the battle was much the same as the previous skirmishes - hundreds of Orcs poured out of the camp, rushing to defend their Warlord while the humans fought in a tightly knit formation. Spears and halberds were especially effective against the Orcs - piercing hearts or stabbing at heads from range.

More of the beasts had appeared from the other clans, but they seemed surprised that the humans were here - and they hardly made any effort to defend themselves as Tyrone and his troops redirected their fire at them. Instead they opted simply to try to run and escape from the battle.

Before he could consider what this meant, Tyrone felt his eardrums quake at the sound of a deafening roar made by an inhuman throat. Turning aside, he beheld a truly gargantuan member of the greenskin species - dressed in finery and clutching an ornate sword.

This then was General Bour. His reputation preceeded him, it seemed, for he was shouting and cursing at his brethren - redirecting them towards the battle. His beady little eyes were focused on Tyrone, and he knew that this little human was the cause of all his clan's troubles - and so he personally took a hand in his demise.

The Colonel ducked underneath the Orc's sword, feeling the wind rush past him as he did so, then aimed a slash at the greenskin's midsection - intending to skewer him through the ribs. The attack succeeded in piercing the General's armor, bite into flesh and cause a deep wound - but it took more than that to fell an Orc Warlord.

Bour grabbed the little human's blade in one hand and forced it deeper into his stomach, taking this opportunity to roar directly into Tyrone's face. Spittle and chunks of half eaten meat showered over the little human - and he nearly passed out from the horrid smell of the creature's breath.

The greenskin grabbed him by the shoulder and hefted him off the ground as easily as it would a child - and slammed him repeatedly into the ground, venting his aggression on the man that nearly ruined his plans.

A sword strike abruptly severed the Orc's arm at the elbow - and Tyrone hit the ground one final time before wrenching himself loose from the appendage's grip. Looking up, he caught a glimpse of Galanoth, fighting the Orc General himself - swinging his Dragonblade with both hands.

Bour buckled beneath the attack, but kept himself composed and began to fight back in earnest. Again and again, his sword crossed blades with Galanoth's, and at one point, they were locked together - and the two combatants entered a contest of strength.

Galanoth used his legs and crouched for better balance and felt his arms quivering with effort; his steely muscles aching as he fought to bring his sword marginally closer to the greenskin's throat, but his opponent's struggle was enraged and panic stricken - a dangerous combination.

The dragonslayer abruptly turned aside and sidestepped, deliberately allowing himself to fall to the side as General Bour lost his balance and stumbled forward. The beast crumpled and hit the soil with a heavy thud - and immediately Galanoth and Tyrone and their men set about hacking the Orc into pieces - cutting into his green skin; slashing, stabbing wildly - and when it was over, the Orc General lay dead at last.

The other creatures took notice of their Warlord's death and felt their impetus lost and their forces began to scatter immediately - and this in turn made them easy targets for the allied forces, Galanoth and Tyrone among them, cutting into the Orcs with impassioned attacks from furious swords and spears.
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Dusk was falling by the time the battle had finally concluded; and the sun set over a now cleansed Dragonstone - and the victorious paladins, dragonslayers and mercenaries had gathered in celebration of their victory.

At the ruins of the Orc camp, with a large bonfire burning in the center, composed mostly from the corpses of the slain greenskins, the three companies were dancing and laughing and sharing drinks, all reveling in their victory.

All of course except for Nicholas, Galanoth and Tyrone, who stood far from the party - examining the curious Drakel made device in front of them. After looting General Bour's camp, they had discovered the device that Uldor had spoken of - the Death Roller, he called it. The thing was an enormous spiked ball, and it appeared to glow all over from some unknown energy source within - and though they had spent an hour studying the device, none of the three men could discern its purpose.

"What do you suppose the greenskins wanted with this device?" Asked Tyrone, looking at his comrades. "It seems rather plain for all the power that Sage Uldor claimed. How do you think it works?"

"My men and I discovered a map pointing to the heart of the continent." Said Nicholas. "The Orcs were intending to attack BattleOn and scores of other cities."

"Why?" Tyrone replied, raising his eyebrow. "I know the Orcs will happily fight any other race out there, but what drives them to attack us?"

"I think maybe this wasn't their idea." Said Galanoth. "I know this General Bour was cunning; he used the dragons and the orcs we fought as a distraction to his real objective - to attack the capital. But it's obvious that someone else was providing him with a list of targets."

Both Nicholas and Tyrone nodded. What Galanoth said made sense, although it seemed too far fetched. First a Drakel made weapon falling into the Orc's hands, then an entire encampment of the beasts slaughtered without so much as returning a single shot, and now the news they had intended to use the device to attack BattleOn.

"We must convene with Sage Uldor. Surely he'll have the answers we seek." Said Nicholas. "But for now," a manic grin spread across his face. "Let's enjoy ourselves."

Galanoth laughed. "Well, I'll show you that I'm not just the best Dragonslayer on Lore, but also that I'm one of the best drinkers!"

As both he and Nicholas turned back to the camp, Tyrone stayed behind.

"You go on ahead." He said to his comrades. "I'm going to study this thing for a little longer."

Just what is going on here? Where did General Bour get all the supplies and weapons? He wondered. And what does this mean for BattleOn?

It was a very good question, but Tyrone wished he had a very good answer. As he also turned back to the party, he had a sinking feeling that he might not like the answer when he found it.

< Message edited by Sir Nicholas -- 6/7/2012 0:31:22 >
AQ  Post #: 3
5/31/2012 1:02:24   
Sir Nicholas
Member

Chapter 3: On To Fangmaw.
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Nicholas and Tyrone had said their goodbyes to the Dragonslayers and had enjoyed themselves in the night before their march back to BattleOn, having gained new respect for Galanoth's ability to imbibe copius amounts of Moglin juice, which the paladin had noted with some humor, bordered on superhuman. Throughout their usual routines as his men celebrated and were welcomed back in a hero's fashion to the capital, Tyrone seemed unusually distant, and he kept turning his attention to the heavens as though gazing into the sky would give him the answer they all were looking for.

"You're awfully quiet." Said Nicholas at one point as they rode through the street towards Yulgar's Inn where Uldor could often be found. "We won a great victory - and our men performed admirably. You should be proud!" He said, thumping one hand against his chest in a playful gesture.

"That's not it." Tyrone said, his mind still a thousand miles away. "I just keep wondering. Wondering, why is it the Orcs became so bellicose, especially after Uldor predicted a time of upheaval. It seems too convenient that the greenskins would rise up just as the Sage received these visions."

Slowly, Nicholas nodded - but the smile on his face betrayed the inner concern, and he turned back to the Inn.

"You worry too much Tyrone. You should really try and relax once in a while. I'm sure you've enough problems to deal with, without having the mysteries driving you crazy."

In that moment, the Colonel considered his friend's words and briefly considered what it was that made the paladin so carefree. Throughout it all, the man seemed utterly, palpably content. It was as if he were oblivious to just how close they had come to losing BattleOn. True, it had been attacked many times in the past and had never fallen - but this time it just seemed different somehow. As though there was an unseen force at work, set to destroy everything.

Tyrone kept his face carefully forward as they rode on past the cheering crowds - which Nicholas seemed to take in good humor as he waved back.

When they reached the Inn, they dismounted and hitched their horses in the stable, and the paladin put his arm around his friend's shoulder - and his massive frame easily dwarfed the Colonel's.

"Come on, let's get a drink. My treat." Said Nicholas cheerfully.

As they walked in through the door, the familiar sound and smells of the warm and welcoming Tavern gave them both a sense of belonging, and Tyrone felt the anxiety slowly recede and fade away as he stepped over to the counter and ordered a pitcher of Mogberry blend.

While waiting for his drink, Tyrone's one good eye scanned the rest of the tavern; nothing really seemed out of the ordinary. Adventurers, guardians and civilians were chatting it up as usual, a pair of Dracomancers and Dragonslayers in the corner seemed on edge though, not something altogether unexpected. The two had a deep mistrust of each other ever since the Dragon War, and it seemed there was a Mage among them, trying to keep the peace. So far he seemed to be failing, and at one point - one of the larger of the Dragon knights took a swing, and in a moment the entire tavern very nearly erupted into a bar fight.

It was only when the mage used a freeze spell to quite literally cool the offending slayer that the situation began to settle.

Yulgar slid the mug down the counter and into Tyrone's waiting hand - and he took a sip. It tasted sweet and refreshing, and he savored the flavor. Beside him, Nicholas was looking over the other patrons, even laughing at one point when the same mage from before transformed the other Dragonslayer into a sheep. A look of comical surprise was on its face as it bleated in place of an angry protest.

Tyrone merely rolled his eye and drained his glass. He was in no mood to be amused, although truth be told he was slightly envious of his friend's ability to relax and enjoy himself - as though there wasn't a care in the world for him.

The Colonel shut his one good eye and inhaled - and the scent of fire flakes and transmogrified food was thick in the air. Truth be told, it was nice, even for that short time - to be able to sit back and not have to worry about a greenskin come along and try to rend him limb from limb.

But then, trouble always finds you, even if you don't start looking for it. No, especially when you don't start looking.

Nicholas tapped Tyrone on the shoulder, snapping him out of his thoughts and the Colonel opened his eye and stood at attention. There, standing beside Nicholas was Halenro, another member of the Paladin Order. He was wearing his usual armor of burnished steel and gold - and matched his eyes as they watched him impassively - bearing the same nobility and martial pride that he'd come to expect from the Order's finest. Unlike Nicholas however, Halenro was a stern and serious individual - and his skin was dark and swarthy and marked with hundreds of tiny scars and abrasions.

"Tyrone, I'm sure you've heard of Halenro. One of my brothers from the Order." Said Nicholas, gesturing to the older paladin in a presenting manner.

"Indeed I have." Tyrone replied, sobering. He'd been caught slightly off guard by the arrival of another member of the Order, and he was perturbed that he'd been unaware of his presence until he was snapped back to reality. Nevertheless, he kept his face composed as he offered his hand to Halenro, who took it gladly.

Tyrone winced slightly; Halenro had a grip like a behemoth, and he was sure that he felt the joints in his hand creak. The paladin seemed not to notice, even when he let go, the appendage was beet red and aching.

"I am sure you're aware of the situation, Colonel." Halenro rumbled, his voice akin to two boulders rubbing together. "Sage Uldor was calling for you, but he is away at the moment. He asked me to give you a message however."

Tyrone raised an eyebrow. "Oh? And what might that be, master paladin? Has he got another greenskin army that needs to be crushed? We set fire to much of Augerthorne, so the rogue tribes shouldn't be causing us trouble for some time."

Halenro shook his head. "No. Perhaps we should take this somewhere more private." He said, gesturing to the bar fight still raging on the other side of the tavern. The frozen Dragonslayer had just broken free from his icy prison and was now on the verge of drawing his weapon. The mage held up his staff threateningly, and the pointless skirmish seemed to be at a bit of a stalemate.

"Agreed. Lead the way master Halenro."
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They had situated themselves in the lounge, where Uldor and Aquella usually resided. A much quieter place than the usually noisy tavern, what without the crackle and roaring fires and constant yelling of its patrons. Tyrone sat opposite to Halenro, who took a seat in a wooden chair near the empty fireplace. Beside him sat Nicholas on a stool, gripping his sword in its sheath and gently fingering the edge of the pommel.

"So, what news?" Tyrone asked after a long pause. "I'm sure you didn't call us out here for pleasantries."

"Always straight to the point, huh Tyrone?" Asked Nicholas with a smirk. But the Colonel ignored him.

"Sage Uldor has gone to Mount Eigerbuld." Said Halenro, either ignoring or too serious to acknowledge the joke. "For what reason I do not know. Aquella has gone with him. He asked me to send you to meet him there - and for Sir Nicholas to meet with the Grand Master in Fangmaw."

Tyrone blinked. "Fangmaw? You mean..."

Halenro nodded. "Yes, the very same place where our brother paladin, Dagen Purmarrow purged an entire village of Vampire children, many years ago. Are you familiar with the story?"

"Well, I heard about it, but not in great detail." Tyrone admitted.

"It's tragic, but heroic nonetheless." Said Nicholas, interjecting. "I figure I'll tell you later once my business has been concluded. For now - I have to depart at once." He rose from his seat as he did so, slinging his sword and sheath onto his back. "If you'll excuse me Colonel - and brother Halenro."

Both of the other men nodded. "Light bless you brother." Said Halenro while Tyrone offered a salute.

"Take care of yourselves, friends." Said Nicholas. And with that, he departed with his cape fluttering behind him in a haze of crimson.

< Message edited by Sir Nicholas -- 5/31/2012 2:17:12 >
AQ  Post #: 4
6/1/2012 18:44:02   
Sir Nicholas
Member

Chapter 4: Nest of Evil.
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Darkovia had a reputation as one of the foulest and most evil places on Lore - and few other lands could contest such a claim. Even during the day, the entire forest was coated in a veil of perpetual darkness. The air seemed to stifle and freeze in one's own lungs, and at any time, a multitude of predators were waiting in the shadows - ready to devour the unwary. Then of course came the undead - legions of them. Whether subsumed into the armies of their necromantic masters or mindlessly wandering about the cursed land, they posed a constant threat to the living in the surrounding areas, especially Granemore.

Because of the contamination by the living dead, the Paladin Order kept a constant vigilance - and many border skirmishes were fought each day. Some of the Lightbearer's first missions were fought here in fact - exterminating huge clusters of undead. Many years had passed since then, and Nicholas was a man now - and a full-fledged Paladin Master.

The irony of it all made him smile, even as he rode past the familiar landmarks where he'd lost countless friends and brothers to the darkness. His horse, whose name was Valorus - was a trained charger and went farther and faster than a regular warhorse. Most would simply refuse to enter past the borderlands due to the inherent wrongness of the place.

As he approached the abandoned village of Fangmaw, Nicholas found that he couldn't blame them. His shield of faith went up like a flame, as it detected the evil emanating from the center of the town.

Artix was there - waiting for him, on the outskirts. He'd declined the use of his sword, instead opting for his axe. His armor reflected what little light there was, and he was easy to spot in that grim place. Nicholas dismounted and sent his horse running with a slap to his backside. His mount neighed and was off at a running pace to wait until he was summoned again. The paladin approached the rest of the way on foot - and he saluted the Grand Master as he came to rest a stone's throw away.

"My Lord." He said. "Thank you for waiting."

Artix waved one hand dismissively. "Yes, yes, now that you're here - we can purge this place of this scum."

Nicholas nodded. "Yes sir. I understand the enemy we face is not the usual kind of undead we're accustomed to dealing with?"

Artix's expression turned grim. "Indeed it is so. These 'Ribbers' as they are called are not controlled by a Necromancer master. They appear to have their own agenda. They were the ones behind Sage Uldor's recent lapse with poison, and one appeared in Granemore and devoured a Giant Zombie."

Nicholas blinked, puzzled at the strange news. He'd heard of individual Necromancers and Death Knights waging war against each other, often having their own personal squabbles - but only rarely did they ever escalate beyond a few minor skirmishes. Even more unusual was when they attacked without rhyme or reason.

"I'm glad you're so quick to understand what that means, Nick." Said Artix, smiling. "Rare are the times when a necromancer's territory crosses into another. So, it's obvious they have a plan of their own. So, whenever you're ready - we can go to attack that nest of evil."

Nicholas nodded and reached behind his back - and pulled out the warhammer he'd kept for just such an occasion. He usually preferred to simply use his sword, the Decem Mandata, or Ten Commandments in the common tongue, but a gut feeling made him reconsider.

The hammer was a beautifully forged weapon with a polished adamantine head and steel haft. Inscribed into the head were magical symbols that were anathema to the forces of evil, and the entire weapon glowed with a brilliant light - energized by his touch.

"Wait." Said Artix abruptly, reaching for his own weapon. "Did you hear something?"

Nicholas turned his head to the side, and only fleetingly did he realize they were surrounded. In an area so saturated with black magic, it was virtually impossible to detect any lingering foes - but his canine like senses had detected the faint trace of a familiar scent: Nosferatu.

"Vampires!"

The two paladins went back to back as the first of their foes appeared. A Vampire Lord, proud and regal, with his black skin blending him in almost perfectly against the backdrop of the dead trees and misty night. He appeared to be directing the others - and three more of his kind appeared - fangs glistening in the light of Nicholas' hammer and off the reflection of Artix's polished armor.

"I don't suppose you have anything to repel them?" Asked Artix as he gripped his axe with both hands.

"You forget, I'm not a Vampire Hunter any longer." Nicholas replied with a slight shrug. "Guess it's time to fight some Vampires!"

And with that, both men were off in a flurry of attacks - and they swept aside the basic Vampire warriors with the utmost of ease. Nicholas found his natural instincts for fighting against his race's greatest enemy awaken - and it was almost with savage delight that he swung his hammer in an arc, caving in the stomach of one of his foes. The weapon flared with power - and his opponent's stomach exploded in a shower of gore as he completed the swing.

With consummate and casual ease, he brought it around in another arc, cracking like thunder as it pulverised a second foe. The Vampire's head was knocked completely off his shoulders, and his lifeless body tumbled to the ground.

Nicholas vaulted over the Vampire Lord as he moved to the attack, then charged him from behind while Artix did the same from the front.

The older paladin had been slicing apart the undead with his axe with much the same skill and grace that he'd accumulated from years of experience. His axe pulsed as he brandished it in an overhead slash - and the Vampire Lord was caught in between two foes striking from opposite directions. The axe hit first, and cleanly sliced off his arm as he attempted to raise his claw in defense - while the hammer slammed into his backside, crushing his spine and pushing him further into Artix's attack, deepening the wound.

Artix withdrew his axe and swung a second blow that rended the lord's horned head from his shoulders.

With the death of their lord - the remaining Vampires had taken the hint that their foes were not to be trifled with, and had retreated back into the forest and out of sight. Nicholas and the Grand Master leaned on their weapons as they caught their breath. Despite the situation, they both smiled at each other in respect.

"We make a good team." Said Artix, offering his fist - and Nicholas gratefully returned it. "Now, onto business."

They did not say much else as they approached their destination - for nothing truly needed to be said. They had gained a deep respect for each other in the years they served together, not just as brothers - but also as master and apprentice when Artix had trained Nicholas in the ways of the Light. The Lightbearer had proven to be a diligent and brilliant student - and he'd taken to the arts of combat quickly - and Artix had watched with pride as he grew into one of the finest swordsmen in the Order.

It was when they were a yard away from the town's outskirts that they met any offer of resistance, for a strong force of the strange undead known as Ribbers sprang right out of the ground and attempted to overtake them in an ambush. However, the attack was itself trapped - as Artix's detect evil was far more attuned than his former apprentice's, and he'd laid blessings upon the soil which they stood on, and the undead were weakened by its power. The creatures were easily dealt with - and Artix set about removing their skulls with single blows to their bony necks. When the last of them had fallen - they moved on.


"Say Nicholas," the Grand Master abruptly broke out at one point. "Why do they always say 'go for the head' when you're fighting zombies?"

It was a strange question, one that the younger paladin had a lingering suspicion about, but he shrugged slightly.

"Because they're nom-skulls!" Artix said, laughing. Nicholas merely rolled his eyes with a slight groan. Although he was in possession of only a slightly less morbid sense of humor himself, he still found the Grand Master's puns to be quite unamusing.

After they had cleared the town's borders, they felt the evil aura growing thicker as they approached - and the faster and in greater numbers came the undead, and the pair quickly found themselves beset on all sides.

They ducked and wove around each other, slinging their weapons in every which way - occasionally smiting individual creatures with bolts of light from their fingertips. The undead were normally ungraceful and clumsy when they attacked - but these it seemed were different. Their bony frames were snake-like and allowed them to move with fluidity across the terrain and attack with speed that caught both men by surprise. Several times however, they found that the undead's natural weakness to the power of light working to their advantage.

Artix was still laughing as he hacked and slashed - destroying creatures left and right with virtual impunity. He sliced up the tailbone of another creature with a downward slice, and was amused at how it feebly flailed and attempted to bite through his armor.

"Looks like this one won't ever be good for stand up!" Artix quipped as he finished it off by crushing the Ribber's skull with the flat, broad side of his axe. Again with the puns, Nicholas mused as he also set about destroying each of their foes with lightning-like blows from his hammer.

"You do not understand. You cannot understand." Said a voice nearby. It was shrill and cold, like the screeching of a bat.

Both men raised their weapons in defense - but to their surprise, the undead ceased their attack. Before them was a single, truly massive Ribber.

"Did it...just talk?" Nicholas murmured. Slowly, Artix nodded, as equally shocked.

"You cannot understand." It repeated - and though it spoke perfect common, its tone was difficult to discern its motive. The creatures surrounding them were drawing back and slinked back into the ground as if they had completely forgotten the battle. The large one simply stared at the pair with its empty eye sockets.

"We have come from the lands to the west, seeking the Shadow Master." It said, as if that would explain everything. The two slowly lowered their weapons and exchanged glances. They had heard rumors of the distant places far to the west - but neither had ever visited the mysterious lands on the far continent. Nicholas himself was a native of the west, but he'd moved away at a very early age, and did not remember much of it.

"Shadow Master? What are you talking about?" Demanded Artix. "Speak quickly!"

The creature seemed not at all fazed by his harsh tone; instead it merely stared at him for another minute.

"We had thought the Old One was the Shadow Master and tried to destroy him."

There was no need to ask of whom it spoke.

"But we were wrong, we are sorry."

Both men blinked and exhanged glances again.

"Why do you want to destroy this Shadow Master?" Nicholas asked, sheathing his hammer. "And for what purpose did you come to Granemore?"

"He is very...bad." The creature replied, still as emotionless as ever. "We will leave. Do not follow us. If you meet again with us, know that the Shadow Master has won - and that all will come to an end."

And with that, it burrowed into the ground, leaving behind a hole and disappeared. Both Artix and Nicholas were stunned into silence, but sobered quickly.

"I have a feeling that Archmage Warlic might be able to make more sense of this than I." Said the Grand Master, sheathing his axe. A manic grin slowly spread across his face.

"But while we're here - why not have some more fun and slay some more Undead? They surely won't be axe-specting us!"

Nicholas merely groaned as he made his way back to his horse.

< Message edited by Sir Nicholas -- 6/2/2012 21:03:51 >
AQ  Post #: 5
6/5/2012 4:57:07   
Sir Nicholas
Member

Chapter 5: Mount Eigerbuld.
_____________________________

Upon his return to BattleOn, Sir Nicholas had seen fit to take a short detour rather than head directly to Warlic's shop - as he usually would when it came to a direct order from the Grand Master. Instead, there was a nagging feeling there would be need for him to consult with another source of wisdom. He came upon the training courtyard where he found said source, in the middle of a lesson. A dozen students were observing a practice duel between Balledor and one of his squires. A female paladin with fair hair and skin - barely past her teen years. She was dressed plainly in full leather armor and carried a wooden sword - and her hair was tied into a long braid, and from the way she was fighting, she was clearly a cut above the other students.

Unlike the traditional method of fighting, the young squire was using a very familiar style - fencing. She moved about the arena in swift, short bursts. Rather than hacking and hammering at her enemy's defenses like a fully armored knight - she instead took up a sideways stance and utilized thrusts and extremely precise attacks. Her swings were calculated - every step was measured and balanced in an instant, and her reach ensured that there was very little in the way of openings.

Balledor was having trouble keeping up with her slashes - a rarity in one so young when matched against one so much older and more experienced. He held his own of course, but he was momentarily taken aback by her aggressive swings, augmented by her small frame.

It was almost like a dance, Nicholas mused, as he watched his old friend turn aside a rushing stab with a sliding parry, simultaneously bringing his left hand around in a disarming motion, only to have the girl counter with a brutal stomp from her sandal clad foot.

Balledor winced as the blow caught him at the ankle - and there was a sickly crunch from what may have been a fractured bone. Severely hampered by his newly created injury, Balledor's next parry was clumsier than the first - and several times the squire nearly disarmed him. What kept him going however was his own mastery of the light and his stubborn refusal to back down. Instead he shifted his weight onto the other leg and continued fighting.

Both were tiring now, but the girl was careless from her perceived advantage. She kept attacking, and therein lay her weakness. The moment she saw a chance for victory - she would rush in, an opportunity that the older paladin quickly exploited.

Their blades crossed once, twice, and a third time which Balledor used to pin her sword-arm in a joint lock in between his elbow and forearm. The severe pain from such a movement caused her to lose focus and release the grip on her weapon - and she fell to one knee in defeat.

With that, Balledor released her and hauled the girl to her feet. Disappointment was clear in her blue eyes, but the older paladin smiled and nodded his satisfaction.

"Well done Fiona." He said in between breaths. "You are a true swordswoman. Another year or so, and you may very well end up surpassing me." He lightly patted her on the shoulder. "Remember though - that sometimes you attack your enemy head on, and sometimes you wait until he has grown tired from swinging and missing. Patience can mean the difference between life and death on the battlefield. Knowing when to strike - is absolutely critical - as is the time when you regroup."

The students applauded lightly as Balledor raised Fiona's arm in a salute.

"Hail Fiona, my eventual successor." He said. "Hail!"

Nicholas couldn't help but join in the applause, and he found himself smiling before the display. Balledor's teachings were rough, it was true - and many students ended up battered and bruised and shaken from their experiences. However - it was the best way to winnow out the weak. Only the truly strongest of fighters could become paladins - and even then, it was a hard life. He knew the risks involved when it took to the life of a Guardian, and so did Nicholas. That was the way their master had trained them, although they emerged far stronger for their experience rather than give up in frustration.

It was a lesson that both men had taken to heart - and one that the grey haired paladin was sure to pass on to his students.

As he limped back towards the infirmary, Balledor caught sight of his old friend, standing in the doorway with his arms folded across his chest, and a smile on his face in amusement.

"I suppose you think that was terribly clever." Nicholas said as he offered his hand to Balledor. "Allowing her to injure you, all so that you could give her a false opening." If the returned grin on Balledor's face was any indication, then it was true - he'd deliberately allowed himself to be hurt, all so he could win the match. Such a thing wasn't unheard of - for when it came to combat, the older paladin was as stubborn as a mule - and twice as strong.

"You know me, Nicholas." Balledor shot back. "It'll take more than a bruised ankle to take me out of a good old fashioned fight. It's that kind of rush that I live for. After all...'pain is weakness...-"

"-leaving the body." Nicholas finished, nodding. "It seems that our Master taught you well. It also looks like he passed on being a goat that is just too stubborn to die."

Both men laughed. It was rare that the normally calm and stoic warriors ever allowed such displays - but to two men that had served for over a decade, this was just an expression of their mutual respect. They had saved each other's lives many times, and each had proven his mettle - more times than either could count.

Unlike his old friend however, Nicholas was well aware that Balledor was rapidly approaching the time when he would have to retire - whether he liked it or not. The man was long lived; even for a light-blessed warrior, but unlike the Lycan standing beside him - he would eventually grow infirm and die.

Their teacher - the previous Grand Master before Artix, Commander Paladin, for whom the Order was named - was a proud and stern man not unlike Balledor. He was strong and light-blessed, like all of his brothers and foremost apprentices, but he was also a mortal man. When the time came, he had trained Artix and eventually passed on the title of Grand Master to him. After which he simply disappeared. Some had joked that he was still alive - too stubborn to pass on, even today. Others knew him better and thought that he just simply had retired to a quiet little portion of the world to live out his life.

That would never happen to Nicholas however - as Lycans were ageless. He would exist forever if he did not meet his end in battle. He'd long ago made peace with it - but when the time came, he would again decline becoming the new Grand Master in favor of the life of an elite soldier.

Such was the way of the previous cycle in fact.

Now that Artix was reigning as the leader of the Order, there were naturally questions of who would succeed Balledor as chief trainer, and with Nicholas out of the question as senior field agent - this would be remedied by the inclusion of a new recruit. Balledor's own apprentice, Fiona.

The girl approached the two men and bowed her head minutely. She was young, but she knew her place before her superiors.

"Master Nicholas." She said in an overly polite and formal tone. "It is an honor."

The Lycan held up his hand awkwardly. "Please, child. Just call me Niko. You know how I feel about formalities. Especially when someday I might have to salute you!"

She nodded slightly, clearly dreading and longing for the thought of being a Master herself. She was only a youngster, after all - compared to the two men before her. She had a lot to learn, and she knew it, but the unexpected praise from two of the more senior members of the Order brought with it a sense of accomplishment. Fiona had learned much in the time she'd spent in the Order - and learned well.

"Is it true then Niko?" Fiona asked, her ears perking up. "There's going to be a war soon?"

Slowly, Nicholas' gaze turned to Balledor, who looked the other way. Clearly he'd been spreading rumors again. At the very least, he knew that Fiona was smart and perceptive, and she would probably pass on the rumors to her peers. The very least that Nicholas could do was tell the truth, but not everything. It was a well tried diplomatic tool he found was most useful for dealing with the young.

"Well it's a strong possibility. We are having a serious discussion about the current situation in the council - but rest assured the situation is well under control."

That was enough to satisfy her it seemed, and she took it with a graceful nod. "Well then, off you go child." Said Balledor. "We have much to discuss, Nicholas and I. Continue training; I shan't be long." And with that, she was off in a flash - though not before giving him a curt salute.


When they were sure that they were alone, Nicholas sat down on a nearby bench - and Balledor was in tow as he twisted and turned his injured leg; snapping the dislocated limb back into place. With that, he sat down next to his friend - and the two men were quiet for a long moment.

It was a beautiful autumn day - and the sun was shining - and there was a serene feeling about the training courtyard even as they heard the telltale sounds of the clanging of metal from somewhere else where their students fought another practice duel. The battles had been draining; and Nicholas was quick to appreciate any moments to himself. It came naturally to relax and enjoy the scenery - what with his enhanced senses, and his own connection to nature.

The younger paladin took a breath and looked at his friend - studying his greying hair and weathered features curiously for a moment.

"He's sending you on another mission, isn't he?"

There was no need to ask whom he spoke of. Nicholas nodded in affirmation, then sighed as he leaned back against the wall - closing his eyes in quiet contemplation.

"You're aware of the situation then I take it?" Balledor continued. "We're getting more recruits by the day, although this recent business in the Holy Land may have cost us dearly, we are beginning to mend."

Ever since the recent war with the necromancers, several of the Order's graveyards had been raided - and many of the fallen were raised against their former brothers in a vile mockery of the pride and power they once held in life. Moreover - many members of the Order had died in that terrible conflict. It was all they could do to replace whatever losses they could by calling on more recruits, but to train and equip them took time and money. The thought of war weighed heavily on their minds - especially after the recent rash of betrayals - many prominent members falling from the Light and embracing the Forbidden Arts in exchange for glory and power.

Fortunately, Artix was nothing if not a shrewd and tactically minded leader. Ever since Balledor had been put in charge of the training courses, there was at least some progress being made in that regard. Many new students were being trained - and many more fresh faced recruits were ready to join.

"That at least is good to know, old friend." Said Nicholas at last. "The Grand Master has requested that I go to see Warlic and consult why Sage Uldor has gone to Mount Eigerbuld."

Balledor raised an eyebrow. "Eigerbuld? Isn't that where there's some kind of leyline intersecting between our world and the Ethereal Realm?"

"Indeed. I wonder if this whole business has something to do with Jackal Sano." Nicholas replied. "I know at least that we can count on him and Warlic in the event there's ever another war. We need good allies in these times, and at least Lord Galanoth and Sir Tathlin have pledged their support to the Order."

Ever since Nicholas had completed his training, he'd maintained contact with the senior Knight Sir Tathlin of Rennd. A powerful fighter and representative to the King of Rennd, he ensured that peace was kept in that region of the world - and had agreed to train Nicholas and several other aspiring paladins in the art of combat.

Meanwhile, Jackal Sano - one of the most powerful sorcerers in the world - and a close associate of Warlic, maintained his realm in the Ethereal dimension - where he trained young wizards. He was a powerful ally for his mastery of the elements - and he'd played a major role in the Carnax War, greatly assisting the Order in defeating the monster.

The Order kept close ties with its neighbors, for even the greatest of paladins could not hope to defeat all the evils in the world alone. At least they had friends in this part of the world that could be counted on.

"So, what do you need?" Balledor asked, placing his hand on Nicholas' shoulder. "We're brothers, you and I. Whenever you've had a problem, you've always turned to me for help."

Nicholas smiled at that. "Well, I have a bad feeling. Tyrone had mentioned it before - and we were sure that this event with the Orcs was just an isolated event. But it turns out that it was connected somehow to Uldor's injury - and the recent troubles in Granemore. First the appearance of the Ribbers - and then an army of Orcs appears out of nowhere with Drakel made weapons? And then of course - in the middle of it all is a strange vision by Sage Uldor? Where does it end? How do these pieces fit together?"

"Whatever's happening, we'll figure it out together." Said Balledor, tightening his grip on his friend's shoulderpad. "We'll find a way to stop whatever's about to happen and come out stronger in the end for it. You'll see."

"If you say so."

And with that, Nicholas rose from his seat and turned to go. Before he did so, he flashed his friend a genuine smile.

"Thanks Balledor. It pleases me greatly to know I can rely on you if nothing else."

Balledor returned the grin with a playful salute. "We are brothers you and I." He repeated. "Where would we be if we didn't have each other?"

____________________________________

The scene of Warlic's shop was usually a mix of magical experiments, the lingering scent of old parchments, sandwiched in between myriad of concoctions and old tomes and an eon's worth of precious scrolls knowledge that even the greatest scholars could not hope to comprehend.

Right now though it seemed much more...tidy. Of course, it need not be said that Warlic was always busy in between managing his shop, simultaneously assisting in whatever endeavors required his attention - interspersed with trips to the farthest reaches of Lore in search of arcane knowledge. He'd usually enchanted his appliances to simply move on their own - to keep his shop relatively clean in the periods when he was away, but right now it seemed as though he was expecting a visitor when the door swung open, and Nicholas walked through.

The Archmage was standing behind the counter as per usual, clutching his staff and holding his crystal ball. His silvery-grey hair was neatly parted and hung over his face, partly concealing one of his vibrantly shaded violet eyes.

"Welcome Sir Nicholas." He said, a cat-like smile appearing on his sharp features. "I have been expecting you."

"Greetings Archmage." Replied the paladin as the door shut itself behind him. "The Grand Master has requested that I consult with you over this recent matter with...-"

"-The Ribbers - yes, I know." Said Warlic, nodding. Nicholas sobered; feeling slightly more annoyed than intimidated at the foresight with which the Archmage spoke. Truth be told, he was always slightly off put by Warlic's eerie aura of omniscience - it was as if he could simply predict the near future - possibily even read minds, which he would not put past the man given his upbringing and general demeanor.

"So, what can you tell me about them?"

"Only that you must be very special to have them come after you. No one has ever seen or heard of Ribbers since before a month ago. They appear to originate from the Lands to the West, a mysterious and exotic region beyond Darkovia - where you were born." Warlic gestured with his chin towards Nicholas' sword, which hung in the scabbard at his belt. "And where that weapon was forged. Do you remember the story of its creation?"

Nicholas slowly drew the Decem Mandata from its sheath and inspected the blade. He did indeed recall - hearing the old stories from his father about how a great swordsmith, his own ancestor, Mathyias - had created a weapon imbued with a tiny 'spark' of divine power from the Goddess Loritha. It was said that only a true hero could wield it - a weapon which would never dull nor fracture or damage - a blade that would remain as powerful as the day it was created.

The tiny blue jewel at the bottom of the pommel was supposedly the source of its power. A 'tear' of the Goddess.

"What of it?" Nicholas asked, sheathing his weapon. "Does this have something to do with Sage Uldor's vision?"

"See for yourself." Replied the Archmage, raising his crystal ball and allowing Nicholas to peer into its depths.


For a moment there was nothing, but then the clouds within it began to part and showed him things.

A mountain - which was suddenly hit with an untold might - and the scene changed - appearing over a vast island where hidden knowledge could be found - then a huge crater with a waterfall, whose waves never seemed to fill.

The scene changed once again, and this time an old figure sitting on a throne, wearing a crown appeared. Although he was aged and weathered, his eyes were intense and held deep wisdom. Hope flung about the figure - but there were other forces.

And then Uldor appeared - Aquella beside him, and together the two were focusing their powers - only to come under attack by a massive creature wearing a horned helm, wielding a dangerous looking club.

The last thing that Nicholas saw within the orb before the vision ended was a picture of a red claw - tearing apart the fabric of reality itself, and a slender frame stepping through a newly created portal...


Nicholas blinked his searing eyes and was back in Warlic's shop.

"What in the name of Loritha was that all about?" He did exclaim, giving the Archmage a confused glare.

"I can tell you only that you must travel to Mount Eigerbuld. Sage Uldor is in grave danger."
AQ  Post #: 6
6/13/2012 15:19:10   
Sir Nicholas
Member

Chapter 6: City of Rogues.
________________________________

Sir Nicholas was a man well known for his intellect, and for his ability to perceive what others could not. It came with being a paladin - after all, he had to learn to think quickly on his feet, and in times of peace, he'd gained a reputation as a philosopher. However, all this could not prepare him for the oddity that he was just now experiencing. He'd done as Warlic had asked and attended to the Troll tribe of Mount Eigerbuld, only to discover that they had not taken Sage Uldor - nor had they attacked him. Their leader, an unusually reasonable member of the species named Flerg.

"We no take Sage." The Chieftain had told him after he'd bested the troll in a duel, a fight which itself came after he'd defeated the Diamond Dog that served as Flerg's pet. "We hold onto them until armored man pay us for helping him. He rode south. Towards Krovesport. That all Flerg know - and Flerg tell truth, never would Flerg dishonor tribe by lying."

He'd believed the troll, and before Nicholas could himself ride away, the chieftain stopped him - placing one massive hand on his pauldron, then brought up his boss-club in a presenting manner.

"You beat Flerg in battle. Flerg happy to meet strong opponent." He had said, allowing Nicholas to take the club. Although it was truthfully too large and cumbersome for the Lycan to use it in combat, he'd had no trouble carrying it. The club was at least the size of a man - and it was well made, for a troll crafted device. "Flerg give little man gift. You tribe now. If little man need help - call and Flerg will be there."

After thanking him, Nicholas had proceeded the rest of the journey on foot, walking his horse rather than burden him with the additional weight of the massive club.

His thoughts returned to the mystery at hand. First the trolls had claimed they had not harmed Uldor and Aquella, and then an armored man came for them, and now the three were in Krovesport - sometimes called the City of Cutthroats: A mostly lawless place occupied by thieves, bandits, misers, assassins, mercenaries, torturers, rogues, fighters for hire - and the occasional lawyer.

The city was always hustling and bustling with the mingling of the common folk - buying, selling, trading in stolen goods. Several times the paladin's presence had drawn unwanted attention, especially since an upright man always seemed to be a tempting target to the scum of the lower city where the gates were always open to outlaws. Some had taken notice of his armor and richly emblazoned weapons, and a few had tried to take him down about four times across the city in separate surprise attacks.

However, Nicholas' trained combat instincts and his natural aptitude for fighting groups was well proportioned, and his foes had chosen the wrong way to fight. They were armed mostly with knives, while he wielded a sword. The rogues were dressed in leather, and he was wearing a full set of steel plate.

It was after he'd broken the jaw of the last of his would-be robbers that he'd finally gotten some measure of peace. The unconscious bodies of at least a dozen of his attackers lay around him, battered and bruised. Another figure had stepped out of the shadows as he attempted to catch his breath - but he held no weapon, and the paladin sensed no hostile intent from him.

Nicholas looked up and blinked in surprise. The figure was an Orc. Unlike the brutes from before, he was dressed in a full linen shirt underneath a chainmail hauberk and coif. His trousers were neat and well stitched, unlike the filthy rags the primitive members of his kind wore. Even his boots were shined and belted and looked expensive. The Orc himself had blue eyes and black hair tied into a neat braid, as well as the green skin that was typical of his race.

"Calm yourself warrior." He said in perfect Common. "I am not your enemy. In truth, I'm here to help you."

Nicholas felt his tension ease, and he sensed the sincerity in the Orc's words. There was no deception - no trap, only a gentle presence emanating from the Orc as he waited for the paladin to regain his composure.

"I am Gromgar, son of Gringar." Said the Orc, raising his left fist and thumping it against his muscled chest in salute. "It is an honor."

"Sir Nicholas, son of James." Replied the paladin, returning the gesture heartily. "The honor is mine. Tell me, Gromgar - what know you of my mission?"

The orc regarded him for a moment. "Word is deep in the city, that you seek the Sage Uldor. I know of one man that may have seen this sage and the water elf companion."

Nicholas raised an eyebrow. "And how did you come across this information, Gromgar?" He asked. "I have told no one else of my quest."

Gromgar flashed him a toothy grin. "Goods are not the only thing stolen or bought in this city, son of James. Information can be a powerful tool. You of all people should understand that. I have heard of you - paladin, and I see now the rumors are true." He gestured to the bodies of the paladin's defeated foes. "Were that you had been an Orc yourself - and you would have been chieftain in no time at all."

Whether it was a compliment or thinly veiled sarcasm, the paladin could not tell. Gromgar seemed not to notice his discomfort, and he continued on, gesturing towrads the nearest building - an inn.

"Come paladin." He said, continuing. "We are exposed out here to the elements. Krovesport is a dangerous place, doubly so at night. You must meet my kin, and we will share our knowledge with you."

"Lead the way, Gromgar."
____________________________________

The Orcs were as accomodating as any other people on Lore in times of peace it seemed. For such a strong race so steeped in war, they were not that much different than Lycans, Nicholas thought as he watched two of them competing in a drinking contest at the table opposite to the one he sat at, Gromgar next to him as they waited for his contact. The other greenskins were shouting and jeering, and laughing as one of the competitors, a female of the species emptied her mug first - and raised it in triumph. Her opponent, a male, was left to slump back in defeat as his brethren booed and cursed.

"Not what you were expecting, I take it, paladin?" Said Gromgar, looking up from his own glass of what appeared to be dark colored wine. The bottle next to him was written in a language he'd never seen - with a small elongated skull on the label.

"Not really, no." Said Nicholas. "Where I come from, the Orcish peoples are not so...shall we say, welcoming of other races."

Gromgar nodded and drained his glass.

"Well, from what I hear - you've only ever faced our people in war. We have a reputation as a brutal warrior race." He said, briefly looking off to the side as if he were mentioning something shameful. "A description which holds water, as the humans say."

"But not entirely fair." Nicholas offered. "We Lycans are not well thought of either by the majority of people. But rest assured, there is no reason why we should authenticate these baseless accusations of barbarity."

Gromgar was smiling and he raised one eyebrow. "Well, from your speech, I can tell you are of an educated class. Possibly a noble stock. You are well built and confident in your movements. Am I right? From your accent - I can tell you are not from around here, or indeed, from Darkovia like the majority of your kin."

Nicholas blinked. For a moment he wondered if it was so obvious - but he dismissed the thought. He'd been momentarily caught off guard. Gromgar was a perceptive Orc it seemed - and he caught on quickly. Best to humor him.

"Indeed. I was born to lesser nobility in the lands far to the west - though I grew up in the projects of the capital after my family lost favor with the local lords we served."

Gromgar appeared to take this in with good grace, and his facial expressions were difficult to read. He was clearly a skilled diplomat, and if the scars on his body and his face were any indication, he knew how to handle himself in a fight. Not that surprising - of course, given the fact he was an enormous Orc - with his muscles stretched tightly beneath his tunic.

"Ah, well - I know very little of the human politics. Or in your case, Lycans. However, I expect someone of your reputation to know his way around the bargaining tables." Gromgar said, laughing. "But enough pleasantries. Come, let us see what is keeping our friend - shall we?"

And with that, a heavily armored figure strode into the taverns, as if answering Gromgar's call. Nicholas recognized the plated armor and the floral design around his tabard - and he instinctively knew this was a fellow knight, but there was something different about his aura. His soul, his heart was...unusual.

"I am Sir Barca." He said, not even bothering to remove his helm. "I understand you are looking for Sage Uldor and the Water Elf?" And as Nicholas nodded, from the corner of his eye, he could make out the flash of metal. "Well - I know where to find them." Barca continued. "But...information comes at a price."

Figures. Leave it to his own sense of sacred hospitality to lead him into a trap.

"I think you're being unreasonable." Said Nicholas calmly, folding his hands into his lap. "Can't we settle this like gentlemen?"

Two thugs came up from either side - and to the paladin's surprise, Gromgar rose from his seat and drew into a fighting stance; but not towards him. Instead, he seemed to be fending off the other patrons, who now were brandishing knives and pistols.

"Now you're being rude."

And with that, Nicholas was on his feet faster than anyone could have anticipated - and the chair he sat upon was launched like a projectile into the stomach of the nearest thug. Gromgar immediately twisted the arm of another and wrenched a dagger from him. Now armed with a weapon, he held it up threateningly - as if daring the nearest of his attackers to come at him.

Sir Barca had drawn a long sword from underneath one of the tables and was immediately swiping at the paladin - who had drawn his warhammer and bashed aside the blow. The other two thugs had recovered from their earlier blows and now were trying to surround him.

For a moment, the Lycan and the Orc came to rest, back-to-back as they held off their foes with hammer and knife. Then, Gromgar was off, shouting in the Orc language as he tackled the henchmen - punching and pummeling them.

Sir Barca was a fast opponent - but he was only human. His skills were impressive, but they were no match for a fully trained Lycan - and as he tried to bring his sword around in a cresent arc, he found that the paladin had vanished. A gauntleted hand seized Barca by the throat and shoved him with such force that he went flying.

Crash!

Splinters of wood and broken bottles were thrown in every direction as the knight collapsed in a heap, followed by his two henchmen. The rest of the bar patrons, who had backed off until this point, had erupted into their own individual duels. All sense of order had seemed to vanish as the paladin and the Orc warrior had defeated their opponents. Now it was every man for himself - and all were out for blood.
_______________________________________

In the end, the only two fighters left standing were the two that had begun it. The brawl had taken them ten minutes to finish off the last of their would-be challengers. The sounds of battle and collapsing masonry had attracted more rogues like sharks to blood.

Finally, when the final opponent had been thoroughly bruised and beaten - Nicholas once more stood over a veritable pile of writhing bodies. Broken limbs flailed about from the pile, while the stench of freshly spilled drinks from the ruined bar had filled the air. Near the middle of it all was Barca, who had been left where he lay up to this point. The Lycan seized him by the collar and hauled the man up until his legs dangled off the ground by a scant few inches.

"Now, you are going to tell me, what I want to know..." Nicholas said slowly, deliberately. "Or I'm going to send you to the junkyard - in pieces!" And there was a flash of fangs beneath his parted lips at the last syllable.

"Northeastern alleys." Barca managed. "Look for a Tank Knight, armed with an axe."

"Thank you." Said Nicholas, casually dropping the man - who hit the ground at his feet with a dull thud. He was still alive, but he would be sore in the morning.

Gromgar was already outside, stretching himself and feeling out his hauberk for any sign of damage. As Nicholas walked up to him, he stood at full height - a sheepish grin on his face.

"Sorry about that." He said. "I hadn't expected that he would try something like that. Barca has always been a loose cannon, but I never knew he'd try to go this far to get his hands on a few meager pieces of gold." Nicholas waved a hand dismissively.

"It is fine, do not worry Gromgar. I'm sorry about the damage to your pub."

"Now don't worry about it - there's fights like that all the time. Don't worry 'bout paying me. Just call me whenever you need some skulls cracked, and I'm your Orc."

A whim struck the paladin and he obeyed it. A sharp whistle summoned his mount, and the great horse emerged from the shadows like a swift sunrise. Nicholas hefted the great club that Flerg had given him off the animal's back - and he handed it to Gromgar in much the same fashion as the Troll Chieftain had done.

"A gift, Gromgar, son of Gringar. For your bravery - I present you with this; Skullcracker. A fitting name for such a mighty weapon, for a mighty warrior."

The Orc took the club and stared at it in awe.

"I accept it gratefully." And with that, he stepped aside and gestured to the northeast. "May our travels reunite us one day, Nicholas - son of James: Friend of Gromgar."
AQ  Post #: 7
7/22/2012 2:06:02   
Sir Nicholas
Member

Chapter 7: Into the Desert.
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After finding Sage Uldor, Aquella and discovering the identity of his "kidnapper" - who was in truth his daughter Dundela, the Sage had advised Nicholas to travel south to the Skraeling Desert where he would locate an Orb of Light. However, as need of him arose from the summons of the Werewolf King in Darkovia, instead the paladin had sent Tyrone and a detachment of his troops to fetch the Orb. The colonel had agreed and was sent with all haste to meet with the Guardian of the Sands, Jagos.

Before Tyrone was to leave, he offered a single word of advice.

"If you find yourself beset by doubt Tyrone, fight with all of your might. Show your courage in battle - and try to inspire your men with not only your deeds, but your kindness as well. You will find that compassion will be rewarded in more ways than one."

__________________________________________


The journey south had been largely devoid of any threats, though the farther they went - the hotter and drier became the landscape until at last the troops were marching through dunes the size of houses. The light of the morning sun had begun to creep over the parched land - and soon the Colonel had ordered that the camp be set up with all possible haste. This was, after all a land of extremes. In the day, heat and scorching sunlight could cause a man to collapse from exhaustion in only a few minutes. At night, the desert winds were cold enough to freeze the air before it even left their lungs.

Hekara the Yenghali, a local trader had arrived in the camp not long before the construction was completed and offered the Colonel a sip of his special water.

"I promise that even one drop will replenish your strength." Said Hekara. His accent was thick and his swarthy features were concealed by the hood and robe he wore as protection from the rays of the sun. "Unfortunately, I do not have enough for all of your men. Only you - for the right price." He said, rubbing his fingers together in a gesture that indicated he wanted money.

The colonel paused for a moment - inwardly debating whether or not to simply take the water - but decided against it.

"Here." He said, reaching into his pocket and procuring a bag of coin. "Take my money, but keep your water. You need it more than I. Go in peace."

The eyes behind the veil widened in surprise. "Are you sure of this? Your generosity is welcome stranger, but such a thing is unusual." He said.

"I am sure." Tyrone replied. "If there is not enough for my men, then I shall share in their suffering."

And with that, the merchant nodded and was off in a hurry. The troops behind the Colonel watched him go, and some were applauding, a few even chanting Tyrone's name. It showed that he cared for them - a reputation that the Colonel had tried to foster, as he believed that a commander that took care of his soldiers would be rewarded with loyalty and success. Such a thing was not unusual for a mercenary - as was his sense of honor, but not unheard of.

"Get back to work on our shelters men." Said Tyrone, turning to face them. "We had best get them ready before the sunrise. The day is not for travel."

It had taken some more minutes, but the last of their shelters were completed and the troops dug in and readied themselves for the day. Though their tents protected them from the worst, the heat was merciless. Some hours after, clouds began to form on the horizon in the east - and they were aware of the approaching danger. A sandstorm it seemed, but Tyrone had a feeling that this was no natural weather of the world.

Moreover, it seemed too convenient that the storm had arrived just as they had begun to pack their things and ready for the next march.

They stayed in their tents throughout the worst of it all - and though hastily constructed, the dwellings did well to keep out the loose dirt and sand - and when it was over, the Colonel had ordered them to begin the march. The sun had set in the west - finally, and they continued on in relative peace.

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Throughout the few hours that they marched in the space between dusk and evening - Tyrone paid careful attention to the surrounding landscape. What little there was to see anyway, as much of the terrain was simply huge piles of sand and rocks and cacti. Although it had garnered a reputation as a hostile region - the Skraeling Desert had an inherent sense of fierce beauty. At midway on their journey south, they came across a rare sight - an oasis - and the palm trees and cool and clear waters were a refreshing sight to troops that had marched across miles of desert.

Tyrone was resting in the shade of one of the trees when he saw several large shapes appear on the horizon. At first he thought it a mirage; an illusion of the mind created by the intense heat - but when it came within the distance of his telescope, he realized that they were living creatures: Flesh and blood. Humanoid in fact.

After several minutes, it became apparent that these were Cyclops, and the creatures announced themselves in perfect common.

"Halt in the name of our Chieftan, Bandaru!" One of the heralds said, his voice carrying across the distance between the oasis and the patch of earth that they had chosen to stop at. There was a whole tribe of them it seemed; women and children among them. They were large creatures by nature - but they were also family bound and fiercely protective of each other. The largest of the creatures was a truly massive member of the species. His hair was greying and he carried a three-pronged ranseur, and his single eye was a shade of red and glowed in the fading sunlight.

Tyrone rode out to meet them, instructing that his troops remain vigilant for any lurking danger, though he suspected most were content to watch him.

This appearance struck the colonel as odd. He'd heard once before that these were a reclusive people. The Cyclopian species was a race native to the lower regions of Lore - where they preferred a nomadic life in the hot sun. Nicholas had said he journied to their lands long ago, and he had encountered them - and he had dealings with their race in the past, and returned a changed man for the experience.

As his horse pulled up to the area where the tribe had stopped, he became painfully aware that they were armed - all of them carried huge spears, some as big as Tyrone was tall. There were scowling faces and clenched fists among them, and it was obvious that they believed the humans had come to invade their lands.

"I am Naraku, Champion of Bandaru." Said one of the blue-skinned creatures. "What business do you have here? Speak quickly!"

Tyrone dismounted and bowed low, making no effort to draw his swords. "I am Tyrone of the Guardian Third Legion." He replied. "I come on behalf of the people of BattleOn. My men and I come in peace."

A trio of the creatures began to march towards him, and he kept his kneeling stance to show he was not intending to fight.

"You and your people are not welcome in these lands." Said Naraku, he and the two other Cyclops' coming to rest a few feet away from where Tyrone was standing. "We know well of the people of BattleOn, and how many from there have come to hunt us for our eyes." His voice was dripping with disgust. "We are curious, for you have not answered our question. What business do you have here?"

"I come seeking the Orb of Light from the Guardian of the Sands. Jagos." Tyrone said. The cyclops laughed, and Tyrone blinked, confused.

"Jagos is known to me." Said the largest of the trio. "He believes himself King of the Sands - but you are mistaken, little creature. He does not possess an Orb of Light, I do. For what reason do you seek it?"

"My people require it for our defense against the Shadow Master. I humbly request that you allow us to use it."

Bandaru's single eyebrow furrowed, as though he were taking in the Colonel's words, and then he frowned. "No. You and your kind have proven yourselves as thieves and deceivers without honor. If you are to prove your intentions are pure - then you must face off against one of my champions in an honor duel. If you are truly in the right - then surely you will prevail."

Tyrone nodded and rose to his feet, then drew his swords - accepting the challenge.

"I am ready any time." He said.

Naraku drew a spear from behind his back - and he and Tyrone immediately began to circle each other.
___________________________________

The creature was strong and deceptively fast for his size, and he was able to somehow predict Tyrone's first attack - a double stroke. Up, then down - and he parried it with ease. Naraku swept aside the next blow the Colonel aimed with his second sword, simultaneously bringing down one of his huge fists. The ground seemingly shook as the massive palm impacted - and Tyrone was sent flying.

Turning back to his tribe, Naraku banged his fists against his chest and bellowed in triumph; to the applause of his kin.

However, Tyrone was not so easily defeated. He rose to his feet - again attacking with the long sword first in an overhead slash, followed by a diagonal swipe. The cyclops whirled around, faster than the Colonel could follow - and he parried the first blow, bringing around his arm and catching the human's side arm in an ironlike grip.

Having learned from his previous error, Tyrone brought his long blade back around and scored a deep cut into the Cyclops' arm. Naraku yelped and let go; clutching at the bleeding wound - and then turned back, his eye full of rage and pain.

The fight drew on into a predictable pattern; the human would score small hits against his cumbersome opponent, only to have the creature shrug off his attacks. Then, the Cyclops would aim and counterattack - throwing Tyrone to the ground. Yet again, the Colonel would rise to his feet and continue the battle.

Several times, he was grateful that the creature was so big - as it made for an easy target. Anywhere he could strike at least once or twice before pulling away. The problem therein lay that the Cyclops' tough skin had made his blows ineffective unless he scored a clean hit with the sharpest portion of his blades. The trident that the cyclops carried was always able to block or parry each attack that the human made against the head, and would counter with a massive blow.

Finally, the Cyclops appeared to have tired of the human's persistence - and went on the offensive. His spear snaked out into a stabbing motion; barely missing the human's ribcage by a scant few inches. Then he followed with a haymaker, a blow that sent Tyrone reeling as it connected with his solar plexus - and finally, the creature raised his foot and stomped down hard, catching the Colonel in the ankle.

The bone creaked - and Tyrone felt a surge of pain as the joint disconnected, and he instinctively knew the fight was over. No more could he dodge, and the creature was quick to take the advantage.

But still, even though he was hurting, Tyrone would not give up. He aimed a counterattack at the creature's face - intending to skewer him through the eye - only to have the trident easily turn aside his blow. He was unbalanced by his broken foot, he realized. Even so, he forced himself to try another attack. The short sword went flying from his grip and hit Naraku in the shoulder - piercing the tough skin and drawing blood.

Annoyed, the Cyclops grabbed the haft of his trident with both hands and moved in to the attack, and he kicked Tyrone to the ground with one blow. Then, he raised his trident high.

Despite the throbbing pain, still, Tyrone made a grab for the creature's leg - despite having dropped his sword, he resorted instead to using his backup knife - raking it against the cyclops' skin, stabbing wildly. His breath came in short bursts - and the adrenaline rushed through him - dulling the pain. Still he fought on - still he refused to go down without taking his opponent with him.

"Stop!" Came a deep voice.

Immediately Naraku pulled away and kneeled, holding his trident aloft.

Tyrone took this opportunity to catch his breath - and he laid there in the sand for a few minutes, collecting his thoughts and fighting simply to stay conscious. When he finally had regained his composure - he sat up. Bandaru walked past Naraku and approached Tyrone, spear in hand.

He's going to kill me himself. Tyrone thought. Have to move.

But his body wouldn't respond. The fight-or-flight response had faded, and the pain resumed - despite his efforts to try to force himself to move. It was all he could do to stay awake and lie there in his half-sitting prone position. He braced himself for the killing blow...

But it never came.

Instead, Bandaru reached down and offered Tyrone one of his massive hands. Reluctantly, somewhat cautiously, he took it - and he was hauled to his feet. Bandaru grabbed Tyrone by the leg and gently but firmly carried him as easily as he would a child.

"You fought well, Tyrone of BattleOn." He rumbled, smiling down at the human he cradled in his arms. "And though you do not understand it now, I have seen your heart, and I know it is pure."

Tyrone blinked, confused. He sputtered, realizing that he had a mouthful of sand - and he tried again.

"But I thought I lost. Your challenge was to face your champion in combat."

"And had you defeated him, you would have proven yourself a capable warrior indeed. Few men can possibly hope to best a cyclops in a fair duel." Bandaru replied. "And what is more, I recognized your fighting style during the clash. You must know him very well."

Again, Tyrone blinked. "Know who?"

"Sir Nicholas the Lightbearer. I realized that I had seen your fighting style in the past. Many years ago - a warrior from BattleOn came and offered me his aid while I was attacked by poachers. When I watched him fight them back, I knew well that this was a man of honor." The Cyclops' single eye closed as he recalled the memory. "For you see, in battle - I can tell the character of a man - and I glimpse into his heart. When we defeated the hunters - I offered him a challenge, and he accepted.'

'He fought with a kind of courage and determination that I had never seen - and he proved his heart was pure by sparing my life after defeating me. I never forgot this act of kindness, and I offered him my aid in the future - should he ever ask it. But, I have not heard from him in many years. Even so, had you said from the very beginning that you knew him - I would have been honored to give you the Orb peacefully, as I shall do so now."

And with that, Bandaru set Tyrone down upon the ground before the tents - and gestured to the Colonel's men with a beckoning hand.

"Come, come!" He said. "Your commander is injured and requires your aid. When you are finished - come with us to our camp, and we shall share our knowledge with you - and a dinner in your honor!"
_____________________________________

Many hours later, Tyrone's leg had been roughly bandaged - and to his relief, the medic told him that the damage wasn't too extensive. He would be fully healed in well over two weeks time, provided that he kept off his foot until the bones and muscles had a chance to repair themselves.

For now, the Colonel sat in front of a large fire - with a meal spread out in front of him. His troops and the cyclops tribe were surrounding him, mingling and talking amongst themselves. He had eaten little - and he spent much of the time staring into the fire - not thinking or moving - just waiting.


Finally Chieftan Bandaru emerged from his tent with a small object in hand, wrapped in a tight brown cloth. Then he raised his arms in a wide gesture - calling for silence. All attention was gathered to him - and everyone fell quiet.

"On behalf of the Cyclops tribe, I bid you humans welcome to the Skraeling Desert. As your commander has shown himself a man of honor - so too shall I show my courtesy, by granting his request." He walked over to Tyrone and handed him the object. "Here now is the Orb of Light - as a token of our friendship. Furthermore, as Chieftain - I hereby proclaim you as honorary members of our tribe - and as such, you shall be known as the Lightbearers, in honor of the only outsider to ever best me." And again, he raised his arms. "Let us now begin our feast!"

There was light applause and cheers erupted from the members of the tribe, and they began to dig in.

The chieftan sat down next to Tyrone, his massive frame easily dwarfing the human's own.

"Thank you for your hospitality, Chieftan." Said Tyrone. "And I do appreciate your warm welcome."

Bandaru chuckled and placed one huge hand on the Colonel's shoulder.

"When ever you see your Lord Nicholas - tell him an old friend is waiting to hear from him again, and that I give him my very best regards."

Tyrone looked up at the night sky and felt the warmth of the fire on his features.

"I shall. When we return home, I too shall give him my regards for some wise advice he gave me."

< Message edited by Sir Nicholas -- 7/24/2012 1:32:56 >
AQ  Post #: 8
7/27/2012 0:06:09   
Sir Nicholas
Member

Chapter 8: A New Rival Appears.
_____________________________________

Nicholas felt like he was going in circles. Uldor's visions had told him that the time came to search out a cyclops named Naab - who made his home in the Dark Forest. The paladin took the order without complaint, though he was inwardly annoyed at the thought of going back to the cursed place. He had mounted Valorous and rode through the woods until he'd reached the outskirts of Darkovia - whereupon he decided to make a quick stop at a place he'd not been to in a long time: The Wolf-Lair, the home of the Lord of the Lycans.

"Your Majesty." Said the Paladin as he knelt before the Werewolf King. The mighty Lycan before him was the oldest and most powerful of all Werewolves - and he wore magnificent golden armor over a massively built chest. The Lord of the Lycans' permanently snarling expression had given way to what registered among their kind as a smile.

"Nicholas - the prodigal son returns at last." He said. His voice was a deep and guttural growl. "Where have you been all this time?"

"Unfortunately sire - I have need to infiltrate the Castle of our enemy, the Vampire Queen." Replied Nicholas, briefly raising his head and looking into the King's ruby eyes. "I humbly request that you permit me to take a pack of our soldiers to distract the legions of undead surrounding the castle."

The Werewolf King regarded him for a minute, as though curious.

"I notice you haven't answered my question. Your purpose here is known to me, and as much as I would love to see the Vampire witch squirm - I cannot help but wonder - why?" The King spat at the name of their race's greatest enemies. Ever since the Blood War began many years ago the Lycans had been engaged in a violent feud with the Vampire Clan and their dark Queen, Safiria. Nicholas himself was a veteran of that terrible conflict. He had fought hundreds of times across the battlefields of his old home. That was before The Order recruited him. Even so he did still maintain some level of contact with his family back here in Darkovia and with the King.

Seeing as the King was obviously tiring of his avoiding the question, he decided to give him a straight answer. "I have been sent by the Sage Uldor to retrieve an important artifact from the castle. Supposedly, a Cyclops lives there - beneath the catacombs."

The Werewolf King raised one furry eyebrow. "And you wish to take this opportunity to strike against our mutual enemy, is that it?"

Nicholas nodded, and as he rose to his feet, the Lord of the Lycans let loose a short howl that echoed through the den. Then, answering his call, a dozen of Nicholas' fellow Lycans emerged from the tunnels that had been dug into the rock beneath the mound. They, unlike he were transformed into their wolf-forms, wore little armor and carried short swords.

"So be it." The King growled. "My children, tonight we hunt!"

Howls erupted from all the assembled Lycans as they thrashed about in a tide of fury and hunger.
_________________________________________


Nicholas had ridden on ahead of his brethren, deciding that it would be easier and more efficient if they were to part ways instead of attacking in a group - for it would seem too obvious if a fully armed and armored Paladin were to be seen leading a pack of Lycans to battle. Doubtful in any case that his mount would appreciate the company. Valorous had tolerated the fact that he was a Lycan - but only because he had been bred and trained to carry him. Moreover - the Paladin could sense the horse's dislike of Darkovia. He could tell that his mount was unhappy at returning to this cursed place.

Not that he could really blame him - even the Paladin himself was averse to venturing this far into the evil forest, both because of the madness and horror that dwelt there - and because of the memories he had of a time before he discovered the Light. The path of goodness had been lost to him before The Order found him. When he was recruited, he took quickly to the monastic, almost ritual life of a Paladin.

Sometimes though, he couldn't help but wonder where life would have taken him if he had not joined The Order - if he had stayed with his amoral brethren living like an animal and existing solely to kill. The thought of that disgusted him, and he was sure that such a thing would have driven him against those he now called brothers.

So caught up in his thoughts was he that he almost didn't notice a figure blocking his path. Like him, he was mounted and dressed in plate armor. However, against the perpetual night of Darkovia - he was next to impossible to see. The figure was clearly male, and he had a thick chest that bespoke of great strength, and he was tall and had angular features. However, if the white hair and glowing red eyes were any indication - he was a Vampire. The armor he wore was as black as night - attached to his back was a cape of purple velvet, over which hung an impressive looking mace of dark iron.

The horse he rode upon was a Nightmare; a demonic steed with flaming hooves and burnt flesh. It wore on its long snout a metal mask.

The Vampire smiled and allowed a brief flash of fangs beneath his lips. His long silver hair billowed softly in the wind, briefly obscuring his eyes, which seemed to pierce into Nicholas' very soul. For a long moment, the two simply stared at each other - neither making a move.

Finally, it was the black armored figure that spoke first, his voice as cold and sharp as an icicle.

"Permit me to introduce myself," he said, placing one hand on his left breastplate and bowing his head. "I am Vegalok, servant of the Reaper. At your service."

Nicholas' eyes widened at the mention of the name, and he instinctively reached for the hammer at his back. He'd heard stories of course, but he'd never believed them. His father told tale of a powerful Vampire that existed a thousand years ago - one whose power rivaled that of Death itself. He supposedly disappeared without a trace - though rumors persisted that he had been to Lore many times in the past ages, carving a bloody path through all who tried to cheat the Reaper. According to the legends, Vegalok had become a being of the Void - of Oblivion itself and he had learned great sorceries, becoming more powerful than any Vampire.


"I am Sir Nicholas the Lightbearer." The Lycan replied, returning the gesture, though he had not taken his hand off the hammer.

Vegalok's smile widened. "I know who you are Paladin, for it is you I've come to claim."

Nicholas blinked and glared for a long moment. "Is that so? For what purpose do you intend to kill me?" He asked.

"My Master knows of you - he says that you could tip the balance towards Light. I have been sent to ensure that the equilibrium is maintained. Let us duel."

Nicholas blinked again. "Oh - so you desire a fair fight?" He drew his hammer - showing he had accepted the challenge.

Vegalok nodded and drew his own weapon.

"Very well, prepare yourself - for you are now going to face off against one of the mightiest knights in the Paladin Order." Nicholas said. With that, he dismounted and sent his horse running with a slap to his backside. The Vampire also sent his steed off and drew back into a fighting stance.

"Rules of engagement?"

"Use any weapon at your disposal, Paladin, and feel free to attack with all of your might. I think you'll find I'm a far more formidable adversary than any you've ever faced."

It was a bold claim, one that Nicholas was sure held water - if the old stories were true. Readying himself - he shouldered his hammer and took one step forward.

Suddenly the duel was on, and he swung in a wide arc towards the Vampire's head. Vegalok turned and easily sidestepped, simultaneously bringing his mace around in a counterattack towards Nicholas' stomach.

His reflexes are well developed Nicholas thought as he leapt backwards. But how is his technique?

His boots dug into the soil behind him - and he used the momentum to propel himself forward. The Vampire proved too quick as he brought his hammer around and blocked at an angle, their weapons clanging dully as they struck each other. Vegalok brought his mace back and attacked again, lazily trying to catch his opponent on the shoulder whilst bringing his free hand about in a haymaker.

Nicholas let his hammer collide with the mace once more, and he employed an elbow block that stopped the Vampire's punch. A moment later, his leg was aching as Vegalok raised his boot and kicked hard - catching him off guard and striking at the shin.

So he knows to use hand to hand combat in his fighting style. Just like I do. The Paladin thought. Obviously my hammer isn't going to win this fight. I'll have to use my sword.

He would have pressed the advantage, had Nicholas not backed away and sent his hammer flying - intending to smash it against his opponent like a projectile. Nevertheless, Vegalok simply grinned and vanished in a blur.

Flash step!? Nicholas thought, his eyes searching for his opponent as his hammer landed harmlessly, several feet away. He's as quick as I am.

Then came the sound of a blade being drawn, and behind him, his senses screamed to duck. Nicholas threw himself to the ground, grabbing his sword and ripping it free from the sheath at his belt in one swift motion. With that, he ducked underneath a blade that would have rended his head from his shoulders and jumped back up - bringing his weapon around in a counterattack.

Vegalok had reappeared behind him, and he had drawn his own sword - a long and slender hilted weapon that glowed with purple and black runes along its ebon blade. Their swords clanged and clashed - once, twice, three times - and both fighters were on the move. Each ran at a pace faster than human eyes could follow, trying to outmanuver their opponent until finally they came to rest several yards away.

His fighting instincts are superb. The Paladin mused. But his sword won't do any damage against mine. Watch the tip of his blade and counter.

Nicholas had a reputation as a master swordsman, one that he was rightly proud of. He understood well the parameters and mechanics of swordplay. He had taken to the art quickly from a young age. Because Vegalok had never before experienced the bite of his blade - there was no way he could know its true nature. His blade was unbreakable - forged in magic and tempered in a sacred spring. It could permanently cripple Vampires - even destroy blades forged from the dark. But as it collided against the black steel of Vegalok's own blade, it dully clanged and the Mana surrounding the blade was negated.

The black sword the Vampire wielded seemed to pulse and quiver with a malevolent intent. The blade was inscribed with runes of an arcane language Nicholas had never seen before. It was as if they were thrumming with power. Moreover, the weapon appeared undamaged. A little dirty, but no worse for wear - even as it clashed repeatedly with Decem Mandata. Two more times their blades sang and slammed into each other - shockwaves pulsing from the force of the impact. Sparks appeared from he grating metal but still neither showed any sign of damage.

What is this guy!? Nicholas thought as he feinted, countered and found that his own carefully calculated moves were being met with an opponent whose skills were on par with his own. The fight became a dance; moves too synchronized, too evenly matched in speed and skill for either to gain an advantage. After thirty or more exchanges, they were still at an impasse.

The difference in the length of their blades was minimal - barely a few inches wide and a select few inches across. This meant Nicholas could attack from a slightly greater range - but it mattered little so long as Vegalok could continue to swing and parry and counterattack with such speed. He was clearly in a league of his own. Possibly even in the same as the paladin himself. The thought shook him - and he realized that for the first time in a long time, he was battling for his very life against an opponent whose skill was equal to his. To any creatures of the night watching the fight, it would appear they were at a perfect stalemate: Two master swordsmen absolutely equal in ability. Each attack was carefully executed and countered.

Their initial clash had been but a warmup and now it had evolved into a deadly duel where even a slight mistake could mean the difference between victory and defeat.

Vegalok's speed faltered for an instant, and the paladin was quick to turn it into an opportunity. Swinging his sword at an angle, he simultaneously took a half step forward and whirled around in a sideways slash.

The Vampire saw through the deception, instead of backing away and exposing himself to his opponent's greater reach, he blocked - and his own blade did not buckle or break. His muscles quivered as he felt the impact - and the force of the blow rippled through his body - but he held fast.

So it was that Vegalok's strength was being steadily ebbed that he drew deeply of the darkness surrounding them - and became rejuvenated. Then he went on the offensive, hacking and hammering and chopping from every direction in almost simultaneous strikes. Decem Mandata countered each blow or turned it aside, and its master ducked and dodged.

When he regained himself, Nicholas sent his opponent reeling with a furious downward slash, nearly cutting the Vampire in two, only to have him leap out of the way.

"You've got the skills to be a Paladin Master." Said Vegalok in between breaths as he came to rest several feet away. Just what kind of discipline and physical peak was required for such a composed defense? Vegalok was indeed a mighty opponent. "Now - let's see. How's your magic?" He outstretched one free hand - which began to glow with a blazing light. "Solar Incinerator!"

Nicholas threw up his arms and allowed his armor to block the massive fireball that exploded against him, scorching the blessed steel - though it held. He was surprised that Vegalok had that much power left. His endurance was considerable, it seemed. When the smoke had cleared, he raised his arms in time to see that a second fireball had appeared from Vegalok's open palm. His opponent's mana reserves were also well developed.

"Algorstorm." Nicholas muttered. In an instant - dozens of shards of ice appeared, combined into one massive chunk of frozen water and slammed against the ball of fire, extinguishing it. He normally hated to rely on Magic, but this was no time for principles, not when life and death mattered.

"Tendrils of Darkness." Vegalok said. Black tendrils erupted from his hands - attempting to ensnare the Paladin. Nicholas ducked and dodged; leaping over each swiping tentacle or cut them apart with his sword before they could get a hold. He bent his knees and turned all his weight into a stable stance.

"Blue Lightning." He said. A forked jet of energy shot from his fingers nearly catching the Vampire. Again, Vegalok flash-stepped out of sight until he reappeared behind his opponent once more.

"Fireball Z!" Shouted Vegalok. Using his sword, a number of tiny fire-blasts shot out from the edge.

"Earthstrike."

A huge stalagmite erupted from the ground, blocking each and every blast before they hit. Vegalok continued until the makeshift barrier exploded under the pressure. His opponent had vanished.

Before Nicholas could complete the deception - Vegalok raised his sword in a sideways parry, blocking the attack from behind and locking their blades. For a moment they stood catching their breath and staring at each other in respect.

"I have to hand it to you Nicholas," said Vegalok. "I am truly impressed. No one has ever put up such an incredible fight."

"I could say the same to you. Never have I fought an opponent of such strength and skill." The Paladin replied. "You are one that enjoys battle just as much as I do."

"That is true. I am the strongest the army of Oblivion can muster - but from what I can tell, you and I are evenly matched." Vegalok said. "We are opposite - you and I. Come - let us show what we can do."

"Indeed. I relish this chance." Replied the Paladin. "Come, let us end this decisive battle and see which of us is right!"

Truly, they both thought - this was a rare opportunity to cut loose - to really test their powers against a worthy opponent.
____________________________________

The fight continued, and both unleashed every ounce of their battle-sharpened skills - their wits, and even at one point they were both disarmed and resorted to hand-to-hand combat. To Vegalok's surprise as much as Nicholas' - they were every bit as equal in bare-handed fighting.

Their weapons lay only a short distance away, and the opponents stood holding each other back - and the muscles in their arms quivering with effort - and their faces were within inches of each other as they grappled. The paladin was the stronger it seemed - and he felt his rival slowly give ground beneath him, though he had crouched for better balance. Slowly, inexorably, his arms went inches closer to Vegalok's throat - until at last the Vampire broke his concentration by raising his left leg and kicking hard - his boot thundering against Nicholas' breastplate, which was rent beneath the blow.

The paladin forced himself back onto his back foot, and he waited until Vegalok attempted a left roundhouse kick before performing the same technique he'd watched Balledor's student use - grabbing onto his opponent's leg and forcing him to the ground. Unlike the apprentice however, Vegalok was able to wriggle free - and was back on his feet in seconds.

Such was their fury and their desire to end the battle that they simply decided to forgo strategy and instead pummel each other. The Vampire gained the upper hand and delivered a feral left to Nicholas' cheek - dazing him briefly - and it was countered by a left jab to the solar plexus, but Vegalok did not falter. The Lycan's large hands snaked out and seized Vegalok by the collar on his breastplate, which he then followed up by smashing his forehead into his opponent's face in a brutal headbutt.

The Vampire reeled back in surprise and pain as he felt the impact - but regained his composure faster than anticipated and brought his left knee up into his opponent's midriff, simultaneously grabbing Nicholas by the shoulders and hurling him towards the nearest tree.

The paladin toppled and slammed into the trunk, splintering it. Striding forward, Vegalok pressed his advantage, delivering a series of punches to his opponent's exposed face.

Nicholas' right hand snaked out and caught the final blow before it could impact, and he squeezed. The bones in Vegalok's knuckles cracked and creaked as he tightened his grip, and with that, he delivered a swift backhand to the Vampire's jaw, forcing him back.

While he was distracted, the Lycan reached around and effortlessly ripped the tree up, roots and all - and swung it like a club into his enemy. Vegalok grabbed at the other end of the tree, digging his heels into the soil and pushing back.

They struggled for only a minute or two before Nicholas abandoned it - instead diving into a roll as he snatched up his fallen sword. Vegalok, seeing his opponent once more had a weapon, promptly hurled the uprooted tree towards the paladin with all his might.

Seeing the incoming projectile, Nicholas aimed a vertical slash - cutting through the wood and bark as easily as he would paper, splitting it into two halves.

Behind it, his rival took another swing - having used it for a deception. Again, their blades crossed - and they were locked along the edges until a shower of sparks appeared.

Sweat was dewing their brows as they continued to hold each other back - and both were tiring now. They had been fighting for no less than an hour - and neither had gained an advantage. They were simply too evenly matched - and their fighting styles were too similar.

"Enough!" Cried the paladin abruptly, throwing his opponent back.

Vegalok stumbled and fell to his knees - leaning on his sword for support.

Finally they had a reprieve - and both spent several minutes breathing heavily, until at last they caught their breath - and stared at each other in respect.

"You are...the most formidable opponent I have ever faced." Said the paladin. "Though we seem to be at a bit of a stalemate."

Vegalok nodded. "Indeed. We could go on fighting like this forever...though I doubt that either of us would win. You...are a paragon of your kind, paladin. You fight like no man or demon or lycan I have ever known."

With that, Nicholas rose to his feet and offered his hand with a smile - and Vegalok took his rival's hand gratefully.

"Well, nemesis." Said the paladin, shaking his enemy's hand. "Since our current battle is going nowhere - shall we agree to fight again someday? I should very much like to see the full extent of your...abilities."

Vegalok nodded again, returning the smile. "It seems that I have underestimated you. You are a worthy rival - mongrel or not."

And with that, a black portal opened behind the Vampire - who turned towards it.

"If you ever feel like challenging me again, you may find me within the Void. If you fear for your life, though, do not follow me." He said as his sword disappeared in a flash of light. "But if you would truly raise your blade against me once more, I will wait for you in the darkness. I promise that one way or another, I will be the one to put you in your grave."

And then he was gone.

< Message edited by Sir Nicholas -- 12/7/2014 10:41:35 >
AQ  Post #: 9
8/23/2012 22:18:58   
Sir Nicholas
Member

Chapter 9: Castle Darkovia.
_______________________________

With one powerful lunge from his halberd, Ajax impaled the ghoul that was attacking him through the midriff. The creature wasn't dead just yet it seemed - and it roared in his face, showering him with spittle. That was of course before his troops drew their short-swords and began to stab and slash at its appendages. It ignored the attackers, and kept coming - and it reared back the sharpened claws and struck Ajax across his breastplate. The blessed steel held - but only for a moment, and he was nearly toppled as he felt searing pain rake across his chest. Falling back onto his back foot to steady himself, the lycan general gripped the shaft of his halberd and ran it through the top of the demon's head - finally finishing it.

He withdrew the weapon as soon as the creature stopped flailing - and allowed it to fall lifelessly. Around, the remainder of the ghoulish horde was steadily being overcome by the lycan's furious swords.

While traveling through the forest, the war-party had attracted some unwanted attention. Ajax had known their attackers and their nature - a band of creatures called ghouls had erupted from the ground - these were not undead, but rather cannibals that fed on carrion, but they were no less dangerous adversaries. They usually lived in graveyards and other such burial places and sometimes emerged from their underground hiding places to attack anyone in their territory. The prospect of fresh meat had appeal to it as well - and for a moment, Ajax wondered if healthy men like his own passed for a delicacy among these misbegotten creatures.

The ghouls were humanoid - but horribly mutated and slender and pale - with sallow skin and pupiless eyes. Their nails had been sharpened until they had become wicked claws - and their mouths had been filed to fangs. This made it easier for them to rip a man apart. Though they wore no armor and were virtually mindless, they possessed a beastial cunning and always hunted in large numbers.

The lycans were hard-pressed into repelling the horde when it had emerged, clearly they had been waiting for fresh prey for some time; for they fought like true madmen as though they had not eaten in days. Fortunately the wolves were also warriors and trained hunters - and the ambush was itself trapped, for they had the foresight to stock up on blessed weapons hateful to the demonic and the unholy.

For days, the lycans had been trekking across the Dark Forest and approaching the Vampire's Castle - coming across large numbers of the undead, and occasionally fighting them whenever the opportunity presented itself. Their commander, the paladin - had been missing in all that time, but they were not worried. He was a powerful warrior - probably the best among their ranks, and so Ajax had taken up command of the company in his absence, just like it had always been.

The lycan general was Nicholas' staunchest supporter - a rock-solid second-in-command, and an adept tactician. He had gained a reputation as a fighter with nerves of steel, and he never backed away from a fight. Unlike the paladin however, he would use any weapon at his disposal in order to win. Whether it was with rifles or arrows, sword or spear, he was a fighter of distinction. In the years prior to the war he had conquered many Vampire-held lands, which fell to his troops like weeds to a scythe. Ever since, he had joined as a commander in the Order's conventional forces - and he held much experience in leadership.


Ajax wiped his spear's tip clean of the blood with a cloth he'd fished from his pocket - and looked out over the surround. The moon's light had begun to penetrate the ever-present gloom - and he beheld piles of corpses, both freshly dead and decaying - lying across the battleground. The lycans that remained in the pack were gathering up their wounded and dead, however few they may be, every casualty was a friend and brother.

Ajax planted his spear in the ground, tip first - and he knelt and began to pray, inwardly giving thanks that they had chosen this time of the month to venture out into battle. The moon filled him with hope and a renewed sense of purpose. Although the lycans had evolved beyond the need for it, the moon was still a reminder of their origin and it added to their strength.

"Sir. We had best get moving." Said one of his troopers, a young-blood named Mikhail. "The enemy is unlikely to give us any time to regroup our forces."

Ajax finished his prayer and rose to his feet, simultaneously grabbing his spear. He ignored the trooper for a moment, staring at the moon in contemplation - and then turned to face the young-blood.

"We will move on when we are ready. These poor souls are not our enemies by choice." He said. "We are going to give them a proper sendoff before we burn their remains, let us ensure that there is nothing left for the Vampire witch to raise." He could clearly see the disappointment in Mikhail's eyes. A youngblood was what counted as a relatively new recruit among the Brotherhood of Wolves - a warrior whose skills were yet to be tested in the field. During the battle, he'd conducted himself well with his weapons of choice - a crossbow and a pair of steel clawed gauntlets.

"It's true that they are no longer human, and they deserve pity." Said Mikhail. "But don't you think that it would only work to the enemy's advantage if we stop to burn every corpse? It seems a tactical error."

Ajax's eyes narrowed and he visibly stirred - momentarily stunned that one of his troops would talk back to him, much less question his judgement, but he sobered quickly - feeling anger rise in him. "You would do well to choose your next words carefully, young one." He snapped. "You stand amidst the company of the devoted. Any further insolence, and I will have you be detained for insubordination."

Mikhail looked hurt by that comment - and his ears went down in what registered as a sign of submission. Satisfied, Ajax felt his temper subside, and he placed one hand on the youngblood's shoulder.

"Understand this young one. We will not sink to the levels of the enemy to be victorious. We conduct ourselves with honor - both on and off the battlefield. That way we might encourage our enemy to surrender before we strike. We don't want to risk creating an era of fear - lest it end up with us being hunted like animals, as we were in the days of old." And with that, Ajax tightened his grip. "I know right from the moment that I saw your eyes that you were a warrior. I have no doubt that you will become a great leader - and that you will bring pride to our people. But for now, it is time to watch and learn."

Mikhail placed one hand on the older lycan's own, and he nodded.

"Yes sir." And a moment later, a scout appeared from within the woods, whispered into his ear - and then was off again to continue the patrols. Mikhail's ears perked up, and he looked deep into Ajax's eyes - and for a minute there was an unspoken agreement between them. Ajax silently nodded, and Mikhail was beaming - raising his right hand in a salute. "I will try hard to make you proud, sir." He said.

And with that, Mikhail turned to the east and was off in a flash, and Ajax watched him go, a sad smile forming on his face.

"You already have...my son."
________________________________________

Several days after his fight with Vegalok, Sir Nicholas had paid the Castle of the Vampire Queen a reconnisance visit - and though there was a chill in the air and all was silent and still, he knew that the fortress before him was riddled with enemy activity. Hundreds of the unholy dead called that place home - and many more were lurking, hidden just out of sight.

The paladin himself was covered with branches and patches of dirt - and he'd temporarily traded in his plate armor for a chainmail hauberk, along with dark colored shirt and trousers as a makeshift form of camouflage. On his back, Decem Mandata was wrapped in tight black cloth to give it some measure of cover. It annoyed the paladin greatly to resort to such tactics - and he hated having to suppress his holy powers - lest the undead take notice of his position and compromise everything.

Beside him, the Ninja Elizabeth was cloaked in shadows - and unlike the paladin, it came as naturally to her as breathing. She had accompanied him on this mission after he had met her near the outskirts of the Castle - having been sent by the Grand Master to provide him with some measure of stealth based support.

"I do not care for all this sneaking about." Said Nicholas, his voice hardly more than a whisper, but despite that - it was still rich with anger.

"I know. You and your Order prefer the direct approach." Elizabeth replied, barely audible. "Rest assured though that this is not forever. It is only a recon mission. When the time for the attack comes, you and the other lycans can just walk in willy nilly." Her light teasing remarks cut into the anger, and the paladin felt himself put somewhat at ease despite the situation. With that, he raised his hand in a wordless gesture that meant he was moving forward.

He crawled on his belly through the tall grass, under the shadow of the treeline. His sharp eyes were on alert and scanning for any lurking danger - and his shield of faith faintly warned him of a passing swarm of fliers overhead. For a long minute, the paladin lay perfectly still until at last he was sure that they were gone.

Up ahead - some hundred yards or so away - the Castle loomed overhead in all its unholy glory. The towers and ramparts were dark and silent, but the occasional flash of lightning revealed half-glimpsed shapes lurking in the gloom. At a guess, the Vampire Queen had set up gargoyles with an evil vigilance to watch the surround for any intruders from the ground or from above. With his powers at their lowest ebb, he was nigh undetectable - so long as he did not make any sudden movements or attempt to heal himself.

The castle was Safiria's stronghold. It had never before been successfully attacked, even when Nicholas himself was in command. A full army of lycans could not take it if they tried, and the closer he drew to it - the stronger the assault on his mental fortitude.

Soon, he was even beginning to hear voices - whispers from the restless dead, at first they were quiet - but then they grew louder with every passing second. Then they became unbearably loud - as though some malevolent influence was trying and failing to pry open his mind.

In the initial stages of his training, the paladin had been taught to place a barrier of faith around his mind to prevent access or influence. As long as that shield of faith remained, he was incorruptible and pure - but without it he would have only his wits and willpower to resist. He fought back against the maddening sounds - drowning them out with thoughts of every sermon and prayer he could remember.

While his inner struggle continued, he was silently making his way back towards Elizabeth - his trained instincts allowing him to move and avoid distractions at the same time.

"Are you alright?" Elizabeth asked, reaching down and helping him to his feet. Her cool, no-nonsense tone had silenced the voices.

"Yeah, yeah I'm fine." He hastily replied. "I can't enter that place without losing my mind. That castle is evil - and it is full of madness and horror that even my psychic shields cannot withstand. If I'm to enter that nest of evil - I will need a little bit of help."

There came the familiar sound of a sirenbird's call.

"I think I may have what you're looking for." Came a familiar voice.

Both Nicholas and Elizabeth wheeled around fast and beheld Tyrone, clutching a small object in his right hand - while surrounded by a battalion of armed and armored knights. The Colonel smiled and held up the object for all to see; then he unwrapped the tight brown cloth - revealing a shiny golden sphere that glowed brightly in his palm, illuminating his facial features and that of his men - eager faces all around.

"So - shall we light 'em up?"

Nicholas was unamused at the terrible pun. "Cut the comedy Tyrone, I've had a very hard day." He said, stepping down from the treeline and facing the Colonel directly. For a moment he was wondering why it was that every time disaster struck he found himself beset upon by old friends popping up out of nowhere.

Deciding he didn't care, he was suddenly grateful for the man's presence. "Your timing is impeccable; though I must ask - why wait until now to make your presence known? It seems to me like you could have made your presence known at any time, but were saving it for dramatic effect."

Tyrone offered no reply, and Nicholas merely smirked.

< Message edited by Sir Nicholas -- 8/29/2012 14:38:18 >
AQ  Post #: 10
1/9/2013 15:57:15   
Sir Nicholas
Member

Chapter 10: The Queen of Hearts.
_______________________________________

Tyrone and Elizabeth had both drawn their weapons - a longsword and a katana respectively, and the ninjas, mercenaries and lycan troops around them did the same. The small army was fully marshaled and ready for battle - and when the signal came, they marched.

Almost instantly, a full force of undead of every shape and size appeared in the mist. It was far larger in size than its opposition - but what the forces of light lacked in numbers - they more than made up for in their discipline, training and their specialized weapons. Anti-Vampire tactical armaments had been provided and distributed among the troops - and the mages that accompanied their forces were casting protective spells to provide some measure of cover against the black magic the enemy employed. The battle hung in the air - and the exchange of fire between gunners, archers and slingers had claimed a great number of both sides.

The Vampire Queen was watching the fighting from a balcony on one of the turrets of the outer wall of her Castle. Her gold, soulless eyes occasionally flashed a shade of vibrant red - and she sometimes muttered words of power that enabled her warriors to fight with renewed ferocity. She was not one for battle herself - though the magic she had mastered had extended far beyond just a few simple spells. In this part of the world - she controlled all that was dead, and she could command even the very soil itself to fight for her. More, if any man were to look upon her, he would be instantly enthralled by her gaze.

Unfortunately, the clever Lycans were too feral to be deceived by her looks - and the additional protection wrought by the shield the humans had brought ensured that none of them would fall prey to her charms. The evil Queen was instead content simply to watch with sadistic glee as her warriors rent and tore apart her enemies.

It was with amusement rather than dismay that she observed the battle's progress, even as hundreds of her own warriors were slain - she felt no remorse and no pity, only pride that the weak were being culled from her forces.

There came a strange sensation through the weaving spells in the air, as though something were trying to break through the network of defenses that she had placed around her fortress. Suddenly she felt alarmed, and then the feeling vanished as if it had never been. Surprised, but unconcerned - she focused and began to look out for the source of the disturbance. The human mages were still casting spells - using their paltry magic to fend off the worst of the effects of the Dark Forest, but none of them were powerful enough to even register as a nuisance, much less cause harm to her enchantments.

Muttering an incantation, her scope of vision changed and she glanced over the battlefield - seeing every living thing wrapped in shimmering auras. The lycan and human forces were covered by a sickening gold - positively radiating life and warmth. In contrast, the undead and forces she commanded stood out - glowing purple and dark green.

Insignificant insects She thought. Surely they couldn't have caused this disturbance. Then she reached out with her dark mind over the forest - with her consciousness becoming vast and eventually engulfing the whole of her realm, until she could sense all goings on in Darkovia. From the mightiest of undead behemoths, to the tiny creatures that scurried about and shivered under rocks, ready to flee at at mere glimpse of her, the evil Queen could not sense a single challenger worthy of her time.

So far thus she had failed to account that the threat was not from without, but from within, and the paladin had breached her fortress - under cover of the still clashing armies.

_______________________________________

By the light of the orb in his left hand, captured and reflected from his armor, the paladin made his way through the undercroft of the Vampire's castle. His journey through the fortress was uneventful, but the longer he walked in that place of death and decay - the more weary he became. Even with the orb's additional enhancements to his shield of faith, he could still feel the presence of black magic sapping his strength. The air grew cold, even when he started his way out of the sewer and into the castle's lower levels. At one point he passed through a threshold between the upper and lower catacombs - and found himself in a maze of tunnels, with ghosts and other phantasmal entities howling through the air.

Though they were no threat, the sight and sound of their endless wailing was enough to unsettle him. The journey so far had been peaceful but a constant battle against growing tiredness. The dread of the spirits hovering over him - trapped in a state of eternal torment, could not be shaken off.

The further along he went, the greater in number became the bones and pieces of poor victims of the Vampire's insatiable thirst for blood. It was almost like a factory - he realized with grim humor - the Vampires would drain their victims dry, and the ghouls ate the remains - until nothing was left but bones.

He stopped abruptly at the thought of the word bones, his hand instinctively grasping the handle of his sword. Sure enough, there came the telltale sound of the rattling of skeletons - the stench of rotting marrow - and the feeling of utter horror and revulsion that came with black magic reanimating the dead. The paladin whirled around fast and found himself standing face-to-skull with three of the walking skeletons, their empty eye sockets glaring at him whilst burning with eldritch green fire.

In an instant the paladin drew his sword and felt a rush of satisfaction as the blade connected with the spinal column of the first creature - neatly severing it and toppling the undead warrior. The other two grabbed his arms with surprising strength - their claws digging into his shoulder armor.

"Do you never learn?" He said dryly, despite knowing full well these undead could not speak. "I'm going to count to three - and if you don't let go before then, you're both going to end up as treats for my packmates."

They made no effort at acknowledgement, nor did they loosen their grip - and the paladin sighed.

With the same ease which one would throw aside feathers - he easily wrenched his arms free and seized both skeletons by the ribcages, hoisting them over his head. With a grunt more from frustration than exertion - he tossed both of them into the nearby wall, shattering their bones into powder.

The paladin dusted himself off and used this moment to stretch himself, the pointless skirmish having gone as expected.

As if on cue, there came the same rattling - and more skeletons lumbered into view from both ends of the corridor. These wore armor and carried rust-covered swords. Clearly, the Vampire Queen hadn't expected a few minor warriors would bring down would-be intruders, and instead opted to throw some of the more advanced ones into the fight.

"You're looking to play, huh?" Said the paladin with a smirk as he drew his sword up and held it aloft on his shoulders. "Well, alright - I guess I've got time to kill. You boys might even help me to blow off steam. I've been having a bad day, and I need some stress relief."

With that, he gripped the handle in both hands, muttered a prayer and charged.

______________________________________

For just under an hour and a half, the battle continuously switched sides as both drew more magic into the fight. Where the Vampires had the advantage of fighting on desecrated land and seemingly infinite hordes of undead - the allies had superior weapons, fighting skill and tactics.

Every time the undead countered one strategy, the wolves adapted and altered it. Aided by the ninjas - they smoothly made transitions from massed infantry to individual squad formations, and back again - whenever the creatures began attacking in clusters.

However, even though their warriors were strong and could claim a mighty number of their foes - every soldier lost was a friend and brother. What else was they could hardly sustain losses indefinitely - unlike the enemy, who could simply summon yet more creatures from the ground, or forced them to piece themselves back together.

It was after the mages started using fire to incinerate each corpse that the weariness and desperation truly became apparent: Even their own losses could be used against them, and if the Vampire Queen could use their own casualties against them - then this whole battle might turn into a rout. Worse, they might all end up getting killed.


"We can't hold! We need to retreat!" Yelled some of the footmen in the front ranks. "There are too many!"

As though to answer their desperate cries, Tyrone and Elizabeth rushed through the enemy lines - cleaving a path forward and laying into the enemy with fierce attacks from longsword and katana. At one point they became isolated in the confusion and resorted to fighting back-to-back against the mobs. Their blades and fighting styles had proven to be well in sync with each other, and together they cut down every opponent in their way until the next wave appeared from within the castle.

Inspired by their bravery and fierceness, the men in the front kept their formation. A feeling of fresh determination began to find its way back through their ranks, and it was then that they began to push forward rather than fall back.


"I don't suppose now would be a good time..." Tyrone began as he parried a Vampire's blade - twirled and thrusted - his short sword piercing the enemy's throat. "To voice my dissatisfaction at being used as bait!" He looked over his shoulder and Elizabeth grinned and flashed a wink at him, at ease despite the situation.

"Come on Tyrone, where's your sense of fun?" She replied, laughing as she began to duel with three female Vamps all at once. "Besides, our mission is nearly complete. Soon we'll have what we came for and be gone before these blighters know what hit them!"

The Colonel was grim faced and rolled his one good eye at her levity, hoping that her insane optimism wasn't misplaced.
AQ  Post #: 11
9/5/2013 0:24:19   
Sir Nicholas
Member

Chapter 11: The Shadow Master.

The paladin dusted himself off as the last of the skeletons fell before his sword and burst into flames. The pointless fight had been enough to help dilute his anger, but it still had taken him valuable time. The battle above was still raging, and his window of opportunity was shrinking - whether or not he had the Eye of Naab - he had instructed the troops to withdraw before the enemy's reinforcements could arrive. The troops were well trained for such a strategy, having been used to fighting against larger enemy armies, but even so - if they took too long, the Vampires would surround them and leave no one alive.

Silently the paladin swore that wouldn't happen. He would find what he was looking for and be gone before the battle was finished. Or worse, before Safiria realized the deception.

Sheathing his sword, he went on the move. As he came about around the corner, he found himself face to face with an enormous, blue skinned creature. Four legs were about the base of what appeared to be a single massive head. Rows of teeth sharper than daggers lined its mouth - and tiny black eyes stared down with malevolence at him.

A Horror. He thought while drawing his sword. He looked straight up at the monster - managing to meet it stare-for-stare.

"Hello beastie!" The paladin said. "Come and get me."
___________________________________________

Thirty minutes had passed, and the Lycans had engaged the bulk of the enemy's army in an increasingly pitched battle. Alpha Wolves fought Vampire Lords, Brightwolves conducted magical duels with Black Bats, and Worgs fanned out across the plain - occasionally regrouping to focus their attacks on a single enemy commander.

The strategy they had chosen to employ was one Ajax himself had designed: Using mainly infantry and more feral ground fighters, the Lycans forced the enemy to spread their forces out into individual units. Soon, they were fighting alone amdist groups of Lycans trained to act independently of the main force. This negated their overall impetus - and caused much confusion among rival Lords who had come to patrol the front lines or fought beside their troops.

Tyrone and Elizabeth were among the attackers in the thick of the fighting - having bought themselves a momentary reprieve by slaying all immediate opponents, they leaned on their swords and stared at each other in respect.

"You are formidable indeed, Ninja." Said the Colonel as he looked out over the corpses of Vampires with shuriken embedded in their necks. "Were that you had been a mercenary. There are many who would pay most handsomely for your...unique talents."

She grinned winningly at him for that, despite her weariness - she was still in good humor.

"You should talk, Colonel. Your sword-skills are equally impressive. Few are those that can keep up with the Ninja of Mount Daijin. Perhaps you should consider training under me when all this is over? I'm sure you always welcome any forms of martial arts into your arsenal."

Tyrone's one good eye widened at the prospect, and he briefly considered the offer. He was indeed justly proud of his fighting prowess, but the thought of fighting solely for money had become somewhat boring lately - especially because of the overall lack of acheivement in the endless battles against one enemy after another. Where once they had been a great rush - an exciting prospect, he now was starting to consider it an ugly business. Maybe, the life of an honorable warrior would be more suited to his tastes. The life of a Martial Artist was fraught with constant training and the pursuit of physical perfection. He remembered - once he fought for something other than money.

Once he had fought for pride, for his home and family - but above all, he fought because it was righteous. The land was in a terrible shape - and evil constantly threatened the entire world. Maybe it was now time to embrace a new lifestyle.

"I'll definitely consider that." He said finally. "I should very much like to find a purpose beyond just fighting and killing."

Elizabeth looked at him as though he'd just told an incredible tale, then placed one of her gloved hands on his shoulder.

"You're finally beginning to understand." She said softly. "I've always known you to be a man of honor, but if you truly desire a life beyond this one, you'll first need to-..."

An explosion nearby cut her off. Suddenly the flapping of wings filled the air, and hundreds of Vampire Bats appeared before them - striking at the troops in defensive formations.

"We'll have to continue this discussion another time." Said Tyrone, lifting his sword. "It seems we've overstayed our welcome."
______________________________________

Just as the paladin lunged at the creature, it launched one of its famous "scream-blasts" at him - forcing him back with his hands clasped over his ears. The blast had little effect on his armor - but it made his head hurt and his ears started ringing. From somewhere deep inside, he felt pity for the unfortunate victims that had come before him.

Horrors were entities that fed off fear and despair - and they absorbed a portion of their prey's memories in the process. As they continued to feed - they grew larger, more powerful and cunning. This one had clearly devoured countless unfortunate victims, and it probably considered the paladin its next meal. It was a prospect he had no intention of fulfilling - and he narrowed his eyes in resolve as he rose to his feet, ready to stand against it again.

The creature attacked this time - and the paladin barely had time to leap out of the way as one of its enormous feet planted in the ground. Such was its sheer size and weight that cracks appeared when its talons dug into the floor.

Nicholas charged - and a swing sheared off a portion of its lower leg - his blade cleaving flesh and bone as easily as it would paper. The Horror screeched in pain and anger - barely managing to stand as the limb was separated. Immediately the paladin renewed his attack - bringing his blade around for a side-swipe and dragging it by the tip straight through the creature's midsection. It fell to the ground with a heavy thud - and again and again, he hacked and slashed at it - piercing and cutting through tendons and splintering bone until its black blood coated his sword and armor.

But it didn't die. Somehow it clung to life - just barely managing to bring its massive jaws up and catching the paladin as he raised his weapon for the final blow. One of its sharp teeth pierced his armor and got caught in his left arm, but he gritted his teeth and held on against the pain - managing to bring his sword around for one last stab into the creature's head.

Finally it went silent and still - and the paladin fell backwards - allowing himself a moment to rest.

Gingerly he removed the gauntlet from his wrist and inspected the wound - the tooth still jammed into his arm. It was a clean hit - the tooth having gone straight through the flesh and bone and dripping with his blood. Nicholas grunted as he grabbed the tooth and pulled it free - taking a small piece of his skin with it in the process.

The bleeding stopped almost immediately and new flesh appeared in moments to fill the gap. Lycan regeneration was a potent thing - even without his healing powers as a paladin, Nicholas could well afford to take and endure punishment. Provided it wasn't silver and he had adequate energy - he could continue to fight indefinitely. That didn't mean however that the enemy's attacks didn't hurt.

"You're quite the impressive fighter, Lycan." Said a deep voice from somewhere nearby. "The stories do justice to your kind."

"Whose there?!" The paladin called back, rising to his feet in one swift motion.

"Peace, Lycan. I only wish to speak." Said the owner of the voice as he stepped out of the shadows. "Although I must put the question to you - do you come here to claim my life, as you've done to my pet?"

A tall, familiar humanoid shape appeared - along with a single red eye that gleamed in the dim light. Instinctively Nicholas recognized the figure as a Cyclops - and he knew this then was what he came for. This was Naab.

"I didn't come here to kill your pet, Cyclops." Said the paladin. "Nor do I have any interest in killing you, unless I must. I have good relations with your people."

Naab seemed to take his words into consideration. "You speak truth." He said after a moment's pause. "But why did you come here, if not to kill me? Very few know of my 'arrangement' with the Vampire Queen."

Nicholas blinked. He'd expected the Cyclops was a prisoner - or at the very least, an unwanted presence within the Vampire Castle - but he sensed no deception in his tone. Naab seemed not to notice his brief unease, though he did see fit to reach down and pick up the corpse of his 'pet' Horror - easily hefting it above his shoulders.

"Explain, what are you doing here Naab? If you are not a prisoner, then why choose to live in this desolate place?"

"That should be obvious. Few of my kind remain - and so I have chosen this place to live, where I might remain, untroubled by the outside world. Rare are the times I get visitors. Even rarer are those that choose not to slay me on the spot for my eye."

Silently Nicholas nodded in understanding. The Cyclops race was endangered - and he was fully aware of their single-eye's mystical properties. The great beings had been extensively hunted, though the paladin had earned their race's everlasting friendship for his part in saving one of their tribes from poachers several years before.

"I've come for the Eye of Naab, which, I pray-..." He paused for a moment to sheath his sword. "Is not your real eye."

Naab slowly shook his head. "Nay it is not. I do however, have what you seek and I know why you desire it: The prophecy is coming true then - and it is almost time for the Shadow Master to appear."

Again, Nicholas blinked. "How did you..." He began, before he realized who and what he was talking to. "May I have it then?"

Naab reached into the mouth of the slain Horror - and to Nicholas' silent disgust, pulled out a small object wrapped in tight brown leather. With that, he allowed the paladin to take it.

"You may use this to identify the Shadow Master's true identity. But be warned, for not all is as it appears. Truth, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder."

Before he could ask what he meant - the Cyclops waved his hand - and the paladin was gone in a flash of light.

_________________________________________

Nicholas found himself appear several miles outside the Castle in a slight daze, having realized Naab was capable of some level of sorcery. Regardless, he got what he came for - and now it was time to go. The only problem was - Naab's aim had been off, and he'd been teleported straight into a thornbush.

I'll have to remember to repay him for that someday. The paladin thought as he rose from his prone position. And for this. But - what does he mean...in the eye of the beholder?

A sinking feeling in his gut told him that he wouldn't like the answer when he found it.


Unnoticed by anyone - far outside even the paladin's senses - just beyond the reach of Wolfwing's Keep - there stirred a pair of red eyes - watching. Waiting. Smiling.

< Message edited by Sir Nicholas -- 9/5/2013 2:07:41 >
AQ  Post #: 12
11/17/2013 19:21:15   
Sir Nicholas
Member

Chapter 12: The Trial of Vegalok.
______________________________________

Vegalok's return to the Underworld after his fight with Nicholas had been largely uneventful - though he occasionally paused to greet those weary souls he often conversed with, otherwise finding the journey downward to be a rather dull affair. The recent troubles in the world had caused the Reaper's domain to be slightly more active, so there were plenty of new arrivals on the boatman's vessel. Seeing the downtrodden and blank expressions on the souls was enough to slightly unsettle the Vampire - but he was by now used to it. A thousand years of service to the Reaper and multitudes of them, great and small were brought to whatever afterlife awaited them with only the boatman and occasionally the Vampire himself as company.

The ferryman who brought the newly departed across the River of Souls was a pale, gaunt figure in black robes that held a long oar. He was a silent figure, and slowly nodded or shook his hooded head in response to questioning. Even so Vegalok enjoyed his company, for he was an unobtrusive figure and never bothered to stray from his duty. When any of the recently dead attempted to flee - they found their path back to the world of the living was blocked off by his oar. Nothing ever escaped from his ever watchful, invisible eyes. The only exception was the Vampire himself. As the Reaper's earthly agent, he was the one person allowed to freely travel between the realms of the living and departed.

In those first years he found the dull gloom to be disheartening - a realm shrouded in perpetual twilight and lorded over by a reasonable, if eternally distant figure. Eventually though he came to regard Nowhere as a second home and its ruler was far more than just his master, but actually something of a friend. Contrary to mortals' perception of him - the Reaper was far more than just a skeletal entity in a cloak with a scythe. He was an eloquent, philisophical and poetic being - forever patient and responsible; devoting all his time to the preservation of balance between Life and Death.

As it landed at the pier, Vegalok stepped off the boatman's vessel and gazed upon the familiar sight of the Reaper's realm of Nowhere. Although it was a perpetually dark and silent place - it had a strange peacefulness to it. This was actually a realm fringing on the borders between all worlds - a sort of antechamber before one passed on into either Paradise or Heck, to be rewarded or punished respectively for their actions and accomplishments in life.

Before him loomed the Reaper's mighty fortress - a towering structure that dominated the empty landscape. The castle was constructed of seven walls and gates and surrounded by a great moat - part of which was emptied into the River of Souls. Each gate was opened as he walked through and he felt as though he'd just stepped into another world entirely, until he was greeted by the familiar faces of the Oblivion Warriors he commanded. Servants of the Reaper like him, yes, but also agents of different realms and worlds. Each brought a unique aspect to the army and all owed him their allegiance as much as the Reaper, and all saluted or nodded as he passed by until he entered the central keep.

Before him holding his scythe was the Lord of Death, floating above the great Well with his back to the Vampire. This was the place where all souls entered existence and eventually returned to when they passed on. This gateway to the myriad realms of the afterlife was where the Reaper drew his power from - and from it came all the hour-glasses that marked each being's span of living.

Vegalok kneeled before the Reaper, sword drawn and his head bowed low. "My lord." He said as the Reaper turned to face him. "My mission is complete. The message has been delivered."

If Death had a face by which he could, he would have smiled at his greatest servant's return.

"Excellent Vegalok. As usual, you serve me well. Continue your success and I will return what you have lost."
___________________________________________

Vegalok dreamed.

In his death-like sleep, he saw things - both past and present. He saw again his youth, and the horrific scenes of ancient battles. He saw his parents - and how they were brutally murdered by the Lycans. Then he saw himself taking up his sword for the sake of revenge. He saw his fight with Nicholas, and remembered the questions buzzing in his mind as he fought against the one opponent truly equal to himself.

He had wondered what his life would have turned out like had his circumstances been different. One such possibility had entered his mind. How would his life have turned out if he'd chosen the Light instead of the Shadows? That was easily answered he told himself - as he was a Vampire, the Light would not accept him. He was eternally bound to the Night, and the darkness welcomed him just as he welcomed it. But then, Nicholas was also a creature of the Night and had joined the Paladin Order. He was, ironically Vegalok's exact opposite.

The Paladin had resisted his natural instinct and allied himself with humans. By all rights he should have become weak for his time amongst them. But instead he was a match for Vegalok, both physically and mentally.

Unknown to his newfound rival, Vegalok had watched him for a short time before their battle. He had seen him mingle and fight among his friends.

Friends. A word that was almost lost to the Vampire.

The Lycan had grown into a force for the Light, and it had not rejected or judged him. He was its champion, just as Vegalok was the Reaper's finest. But instead of revenge, it was for justice that Nicholas fought. The look in his eyes was not one of rage and despair, nor was it sadness or grief. It was happiness and fulfillment.

Surely, Vegalok once thought - those things had to be discarded in order to gain greater power.

That was a lie, Vegalok realized. No matter how much power he gained, he still felt a lingering sense of emptiness. He felt lonely and saddened. The great darkness had brought him no comfort, only an eternity of bloodshed. He regreted nothing, but often were the times he sought out some greater purpose to it all.

Then something came back to him. A name: Angela.

Vegalok stirred from his dream and awoke. Sitting upright, he found himself in his modest yet well appointed quarters within the Reaper's citadel. He had fallen asleep while meditating, and as he rose from his sitting position he found his thoughts kept returning to that fateful night, 1,000 years ago. The pouring rain, the violent battles, and his self-imposed exile from the world of Lore.

There was a long pause and he banished it from his mind, then picked up the chalice of blood he always kept beside his coffin for such an occasion. As he drank from it, the world turned bright red - and his natural instincts awoke. He felt refreshed - and all doubt was gone from him.

It was all because of one man he felt like this. Never in all his long years had he met a being like him.

"I should like to meet you again, nemesis." Vegalok muttered to himself. "But this time, you will not escape. You will fall before my sword. And then we will see which of us is right."
AQ  Post #: 13
12/5/2013 4:37:52   
Sir Nicholas
Member

Chapter 13: A Brief Interlude.
_____________________________________

After a few weeks had passed, Nicholas and his troops were fully recovered from the earlier fighting. The recent battles had been draining, but upon their return to BattleOn they gained a well-earned rest. Tyrone in particular seemed in good spirits, for he joined the Paladins in their daily training exercises - sometimes even sparring against Balledor and teaching the recruits how to fight properly. Throughout it all Nicholas had watched them, pleased that they got along so well. That was important to him - for he encouraged such exercises as a way to build up trust between his soldiers, and it further improved their skills in a friendly atmosphere.

One sunny afternoon, Nicholas took a break from his routine and joined his brothers in the refectory. Balledor, Tyrone, Halenro and Janosso were sitting at the long wooden table eating a hearty meal of meat and bread.

"Good morning brothers." He said as he took a seat next to Balledor. "I trust you are all well rested for the coming days?" Everyone nodded in affirmation. "Good. I have good news; Sage Uldor is ready to discern the Shadow Master's identity."

"When will he begin?" Asked Tyrone. "The men are itching for a fight."

Nicholas slowly shook his head. "No, Colonel. We aren't going to a battle that will require armies. It will be a simple divination. Only one of us will need to be there." At this announcement, everyone stared at him. "What?" He asked.

"This whole thing sounds very suspicious." Said Balledor. "You realize things are never truly this simple?"

"I agree." Said Tyrone. "Wouldn't it be safer to take along a regiment in the event things go south?"

"I think you're all being paranoid." Nicholas said dryly. "I understand where you're coming from, but armed force isn't necessary. Besides, aren't you all forgetting that it's me we're talking about here?"

There were several murmurs of agreement, and the Lycan smiled. He was pleased they understood what that meant. Though he respected their opinions, indeed, their concern was touching - it wasn't necessary. These were all fighters of distinction and they all respected his prowess in battle.

"Still, you should be cautious." Said Janosso softly. "Are you sure you won't need assistance? I have a bad feeling about this."

"I'm sure. If the worst comes to worst, I'll fight harder." Nicholas replied, growing tired of the discussion. "I have always prevailed like that; after all, the one whose cause is righteous is the one who stands."

This time he stood up and left without another word. Had he looked back he would have seen the concerned faces around the table. When they were sure he had gone, the four exchanged glances and what followed was an uncomfortable silence.


"I've never known him to dismiss help like that." Said Balledor after a long while. "Something must be troubling him."

"His behavior has been odd of late, to say the least." Janosso said. "You think it has something to do with this business in Darkovia?"

Balledor nodded. "I do. He has always come to me whenever something bothers him. But this time, it's as if he believes he can shoulder all the world's burdens by himself. Suffice to say, I think the pressure and responsibility is weighing down on him. The very best we can do is wait for him. If he doesn't come forward about it, I'll talk to him."

And with that, Balledor rose from his seat as well and walked out, following his friend.

_______________________________________


After he'd left the tower, Nicholas was indeed in a foul temper as he walked down the path that led outside of town, where Uldor had told him to meet. His thoughts kept returning to the Cyclops’s words. Truth in the eye of the beholder. What did that mean? Was there something he'd missed? Or was it simply the ramblings of an old hermit?

Dismissing the thoughts, he stopped in front of the large tree where the Sage awaited him, holding the shield that Naab had given him. It was a small, bronze piece of metal with a single jewel embedded in the center. A rather unassuming piece all things considered, but it positively radiated a strange power.

"Greetings Paladin." Said Uldor. "Everything is ready."

"Yes, yes." Said Nicholas dismissively. "Let's get on with it."

If Uldor's eyes weren't covered by the bandages, he would have blinked at the show of impatience - then Nicholas realized how much his mood had changed these past few weeks. He was letting the stress get to him. Trying to wrap his head around a mystery that seemed to grow with each battle, it was taxing, but that still was no excuse for the way he was acting.

"Forgive me. My injuries trouble me." He said, offering the Sage a bow of the head. "I am weary of this mystery, and I desire answers. How does this process work?"

Uldor nodded and held up the shield. "In theory it is simple. I will emit a psychic call through the Eye of Naab. If the Shadow Master is indeed reactive to it, he will come to us."

"And you're certain he'll just...talk? Just like that?"

Uldor nodded once again with a smile. "That is why you're here, isn't it?" And with that, he proceeded. For a moment, nothing happened - and then the orb in the center began to glow. There came a strange sensation, and Uldor shuddered visibly. "Something's wrong!" He exclaimed. "Something is interfering with my psychic ability!"

In that moment, Nicholas felt helpless. He had no idea how to respond to such a thing, but he was sure that whatever was happening was related to the Shadow Master.

And then the ground split open into an enormous, void-like crater. From it emerged numerous snake-like shapes. Ribbers, Nicholas realized as he drew Decem Mandata. Strange they would appear so abruptly, and in such numbers. Literally dozens of them crawled out of the fissure.

He recalled what they had said before: "If you see us again, the Shadow Master has won and all will come to an end." - But he shook that thought off. The end would not come; not without a fight.

He hacked and slashed his way through the first of them as it lunged at him, easily severing its spine. Then another came and bit his arm, trying to force its teeth through his armor, but he tore it away with his free hand and crushed its skull in his grip. Then another clambered onto him, and then another until he was literally surrounded on all sides by them.

A sudden blast of Holy Light scattered the Ribbers - reducing several of them to ash. And then a familiar hammer appeared, hurled from a strong hand he knew very well - and buried itself in the ground nearby. The hammerhead exploded in a shockwave of magical energy - disintegrating every foe it touched.

"Balledor!" Nicholas exclaimed.

"Ever at your service, brother." Rumbled the Senior Paladin as he leaped into the fray, retrieving his hammer in one swift motion. Then he stood at Nicholas' back, and together they held off the undead. "A true Paladin never fights alone."

Nicholas flashed him a curt nod, and together they fought on, ducking and whirling around each other as each Ribber attacked. Such was their unity and precision that Uldor, who was watching the battle could hardly tell who was doing what. Their movements became blurred, and gold-white light flashed every time they struck.

"Why have they decided to attack us?" Balledor asked at one point, while raising his hammer. "I thought you said these things hated the Shadow Master!" At the last two words he brought down the hammer, brutally smashing one Ribbers' skull.

"I thought the same!" Nicholas shot back as he cut apart another attacker. He kicked out with an armored boot, catching a third foe in the jaw and knocking it down. A final swing from his blade and it fell headless. "They appear to be rather upset with us! But why? What did we do to them?"

"You are the Shadow Master!" Came a shrill voice.

The same Ribber from Fangmaw, Nicholas realized. It was the largest member of the group that had attacked him and Artix.

"No, I am not." Nicholas replied calmly. "But I am going to destroy you - for all the trouble you've caused me, and all my friends."

And with that, both he and Balledor went on the attack. By timing their strikes they were able to cover one another, preventing any foes from approaching until they reached the leader. Balledor shoulder-charged the large Ribber, throwing it back as his armored frame crashed into it, giving his partner the opening he needed to strike from the blind spot and chop through its bony frame with a side-swipe. The enchanted blade cut into the marrow until it gave way and separated the skull from the neck.

The rest of the Ribbers immediately ceased their attacks and fell. Every one of them simply dropped to the ground and went still.

Both paladins blinked in surprise, exchanged glances and looked out over the battlefield. Where seconds before dozens of undead had slithered about as deadly and fast as vipers, there now lay a boneyard. Unwilling to question their good fortune they sighed in relief.

"Thank heaven for your timing Balledor." Said Nicholas as he sheathed his sword. "I owe you."

The Senior Paladin grinned. "You can make it up to me by helping train the recruits for the next month."

With that, they pressed their fists together in a friendly gesture, feeling satisfied at having just won another fierce battle. Their guard was still up despite their ease, and when another shape appeared from the pit, they were aware that it had waited until the danger had passed.

Nicholas' dark eyes widened as he examined the newcomer. The creature was purely black in skin color, semi-humanoid and with man-like facial features and wearing tattered red clothing. Underneath the head and arms though there were eight sharp-pointed legs, like those of a spider. Hanging above its back were enormous bat-like wings. Lining the rows of its mouth were dozens of sharp teeth.

"Impressive." It said impassively. "You are strong. Perhaps there is hope for this world after all."

Both paladins stared at the creature, surprised that it could speak so fluently, much less understand what meaning behind its words.

"Epheel!" Said another voice behind them, and Nicholas was surprised to see Uldor walk up. "Some have encountered you beyond Nightbane's Castle. So you are the Shadow Master?"

"Yes, I am." The creature said, nodding. "I am sure you think I am evil. It may be true to some. I have done some evil things in the past. The Ribbers blame me for much. I have been alive for almost a thousand years. In that time, my duties have led me to do many things. The Ribbers are a race that has become undead because of me. You see, I make deals - all for one ultimate purpose: To save this world from a force of destruction."

"What do you mean?" Balledor demanded. "What destructive force?"

"You know this force as 'The Devourer'." Epheel said, looking at him. "There is a book on the Isle D'Oriens that can tell you more of it. Suffice to say, my mission sometimes has...casualties." It paused at the word, letting it sink in. "But you are the heroes of this world: The Devourer travels between dimensions, searching for worlds rich with life on which to feed. It eats the elemental forces, then moves on - leaving behind a wasteland."

"So that's why you're here." Said Nicholas, realization dawning on him, along with a sense of dread. "The Devourer has its sights set on Lore."

Epheel nodded once again. "Before the Devourer arrives, it sends an Agent of Destruction to observe the world. Therein lies your salvation: If the Agent is destroyed, the Devourer will be fearful and pass on, letting the world live."

It was Uldor who chose to speak next. "But why is it some claim you are evil?"

"My long history has created many enemies. Many spread lies about me. Eventually I became myth and was forgotten." Epheel replied. "Once I was a human wizard. One of the first, when the Drakel ruled the world. Then the Devourer attacked and the Drakel hid in their domed cities. The less advanced races did their best to survive. The Elemental and Dragon Lords had retired, and there were no great defenders. The Devourer made many races go extinct, but a few beside the Drakel managed to survive."

"Like the elves, dwarves, humans and others?" Nicholas asked, and Epheel nodded. "That explains much. But how did you get like that?"

"I tried to fight the Devourer and paid for it. My body was warped into this hideous form. A further curse was that I would live forever until the Devourer itself destroyed me! I have spent that time trying to find how to destroy the Devourer, but so far I have only managed to find how to prevent its attack. So I put the question to you: Are you brave enough to face this task? Will you hunt this Agent of Destruction?"

Nicholas and Balledor exchanged glances, and both nodded. "Yes we will." They said in unison.

"Excellent." Said Epheel, sounding pleased. "I have a gift for you. Something that will signal when the Agent has arrived." With that, he reached into the confines of his tattered cloak and pulled out a small amulet. On it was inscribed the sign of a spider leg. Handing it to Nicholas, Epheel slowly began to slink back into the shadowy pit from whence he came.

"Farewell. Await the signal, and know your time to save the world will come soon."





< Message edited by Sir Nicholas -- 12/8/2013 18:04:18 >
AQ  Post #: 14
12/11/2013 6:20:59   
Sir Nicholas
Member

Chapter 14: The Unity.
____________________________________

The Council had gathered in an emergency session to discuss the recent events, and many of the Paladin Order's greatest members were present once again for a serious debate. After the initial greetings and the usual affairs, Nicholas had come forth with his testimony - and when he had finished speaking of Epheel and his warning, he paused for a moment.

The other councilors were quiet and had not interrupted him once during the story, which was odd. Even Sanctus looked to be on the edge of his seat, even though he was by far the most conservative and dogmatic member of the Order.

Something of a zealot, he and Nicholas rarely saw eye to eye, especially on matters of the Order's governance. In previous matters, he had quarreled with the Lycan over tradition, especially regarding matters of recruitment and training.

When he was sure that no one would speak up, Nicholas continued, the idea forming in his head even as he spoke.

"And so, my fellow councilors - I believe that I may have a plan which can allow our world to survive." He eyed each of them, one by one, eventually his gaze settled on Artix - who had been sitting quietly throughout it all, deep in thought. "I propose we organize a task force - an elite group of Lore's most prominent fighters for the sole purpose of hunting down this 'Agent.' I already have several names in mind for such a group: Among them are Tyrone, Gromgar, Ajax, Balledor, his apprentice Fiona and possibly another."

"This idea you're proposing could either be madness or brilliance." Said Sanctus. "But even if it works, how can we be sure this 'Epheel' figure can be trusted? You said he proclaimed himself the Shadow Master, a title which I doubt was won through honesty and a devotion to goodness."

"I am aware of that, Master Sanctus, but was it not your suggestion that we assemble a task force to cleanse Darkovia?" Nicholas asked dryly. "I know I had vouched for that, but I think this issue takes precedence. Once this task force has completed its primary mission, we can assault the undead. Does that sound like a fair compromise?"

All the other councilors, with the exception of Sanctus nodded their approval.

"Even should this plan work, shouldn't we at least keep a division on standby in case the undead should attack first?" Sanctus suggested. Truthfully though, Nicholas knew he was simply trying to upstage his rival by making his opinions known rather than a tactical precaution. Artix responded with a slight glare, but he said nothing. Clearly he'd grown tired of the argument as well, but possibly for different reasons. The Grand Master was at heart a man of action rather than a politician, but every decision he made was as critical to the Order's direction as much as battlefield prowess.

"Your concern is touching, but hardly necessary, Master Sanctus." Said Nicholas with a trace of acid humor. "I am sure I've already prepared for any unforeseen contingencies."

"I think you're being reckless." Sanctus replied flatly. "You leave too much to chance. And besides, what makes you think that you have the experience to lead a task force? You barely earned your place on the Council before you already put forth such decisions without approval from your peers."

That was deliberate. He was actively trying to block his opponent by any means necessary - even if it meant starting a rift within the Council, all simply to prove a point. More, the Lycan realized, it was because Sanctus felt threatened by him.

"You misunderstand, I have not attempted to bypass the due process - nor have I spoken out of turn. I have consulted with you all before I undertook any real action. So, if you truly find fault with me, then please, share it that I may correct it."

For a moment, the other Paladin was silent - momentarily taken aback that anyone, much less a relative newcomer, ever talked back to him.

"You are asking for a great deal to be prepared in such a short time." He said at last - having finally settled on another issue the Order was facing. Manpower. "Surely it will be a long while before we have sufficient strength to deal with two threats simultaneously. Even at the rate with which Master Balledor has trained and recruited his students, we are far undermanned for any operation."

"Ah, but if that were true - then would it not take even longer for us to properly train, equip and deploy this extra division you suggested?" Nicholas said, barely managing to stifle a grin. He had Sanctus cornered. Only a little more prodding and the matter would be settled. "Besides, you contradict yourself - first you suggest we undertake immediate action against the Necromancers in Darkovia, and now you say we cannot act without first preparing? Which is it? Furthermore, in regards to the members of this task force I have requisitioned the use of, most are not members of the Order. If my attempt should fail - which, I pray it will not, then we would risk little and lose less."

That was the crack that broke the dam. Sanctus sat quietly for a long moment, defeated. Then, with a scowl, he nodded.

"You have a point, Master Nicholas. I was not thinking clearly. I fear that, in my eagerness to persuade the others of this august body that I had confused our objectives with our actual logistics." His tone was soft, but the venomous undertone could not be missed. Further, the anger and humiliation he felt was obvious.


"Very well then, Nicholas." Said Artix, inwardly satisfied that the meeting had gone relatively without incident. "You may have your task force - and however many men you think it necessary to eliminate this 'Agent'. May strength and faith be with us."

"May strength and faith be with us." The others repeated.

And with that, he rose from his seat.

"Meeting adjourned."
___________________________________________


In the aftermath of the meeting, Nicholas, Balledor and Fiona were walking to the stables of the Guardian Tower, where their horses were kept when not in service. While they did so, they talked - and once more, the Lycan found his respect for her growing.

"Are you sure that was wise, brother?" Balledor asked, referring to his actions in the previous meeting. "Sanctus may be a fanatic, but he is very well connected. He is always vigilant for any signs of heresy - and any who stand in his way are often referred to as such."

"If you ask me, he needs to be taken down a few pegs." Nicholas replied. "I think as well, he needs to wake up and realize he is not as divinely favored as he believes himself."

"I agree, but I worry for the cost of such a lesson in humility." The Senior Paladin said. "Surely you don't think your own life is so worthless as to simply teach an arrogant priest a lesson?"

"No, I don't think he believes that, Master." Fiona interjected. "But rather, I think that he desires to show rather than tell, as you old people say it. He believes that if he shows off his charisma and his power as a leader - he'll outshine Sanctus on the Council by virtue of merit rather than connection."

"Very good child." Said Nicholas, putting his hand on Fiona's shoulder. He was pleased that she was so quick to understand. "I can see why Balledor has chosen you as his successor. You're strong and you can think. That's a rare virtue in many today, that is. You need to be receptive and open minded. I can see you going very far."

Truthfully, he found the political side of a Paladin Master to be boring, but he understood that every decision made at council regarded the future of the entire Order itself, not just the outcome of one battle or campaign. That was why he kept up appearances - and why he sought to undermine men like Sanctus - who held their own ambitions rather than the interests of The Order at heart.

"You really think I'm cut out for this life, Niko?" Fiona asked. "You seem to think highly of me, even though I'm still only a student."

"My friend isn't generous with praise." Said Balledor. "You are a good student; very diligent and quick in mind, it's true. But what he refers to is your independent streak and your willingness to accept change: The Church would have us remain the same for all eternity and stagnate for it. You, and those like you would have us adapt to the ever-changing times and survive and prosper."

Nicholas blinked and glanced about to make sure no one was listening. To have anyone speak ill of The Church so openly was a quick way to be denounced as a heretic.

"You are right to question your superiors when you believe their judgment is clouded by such things as pride and favor." Balledor continued. "But, it must be remembered that in a time of war, leadership must be clear - and the chain of command must be observed."

"And what if our leadership is inefficient?" She asked. "What then? We do nothing and let our entire Order suffer for it?"

"Ah, but that is why we continue to have faith." Said Nicholas. "We believe that our leaders will guide us on the right path, and we trust in The Lady of Light to protect us."

As far as the spiritual side went, both Nicholas and Balledor believed in The Goddess Lorithia, the deity that was proclaimed The Creator of the Universe - and that Her servants were the 8 Elemental Lords. The one that The Paladin Order had chosen as its patron was one such lord, that being the Lady of Light.

"And if we still find ourselves wanting?" Fiona asked. Her curiosity was understandable, given her young age. But once again, the Senior Paladin put his hand on her shoulder with a comforting grin.

"Then we continue onward. The path set before us should always be the one of virtue." He said. "Though some might not agree, I believe that right makes might. Our Order was built for the express purpose of protecting the world from evil. We pray for strength and guidance - and we are asked to have faith. It seems a fair trade to me."


They said little else as they reached the tower and walked through the corridors - with Nicholas making a mental note of the various banners and murals dedicated to past heroes both living and fallen: A great many of them were paladins that had died in the line of duty and laid to rest with their weapons and armor in small tombs. One of them in particular he stopped at - knelt beside, and uttered a prayer. Both Balledor and Fiona watched - knowing that this was not unusual for Nicholas.

It was one always passed by whenever he visited the tower - that one being the final resting place of his grandfather, Les the Wise.

The tomb was not large; a stone coffin, really, but it was beautifully decorated. A number of small laurel-wreathe designs were carved delicately into the top - along with his grandfather's name and his birthdate and his date of passing - that being almost 9 years earlier.

"'Though I walk through the shadow of the Valley of Undeath - I shall fear no evil, for the Lady is with me. Her rod and staff comfort me. Surely, goodness and mercy shall follow me all days of my life - and I shall dwell in the House of the Lady of Light forever.' Blessed be the Lady of Light - and glory to Her name. Amen."

With that, he rose to his feet and walked with the others on to the stables.

< Message edited by Sir Nicholas -- 2/24/2014 4:15:36 >
AQ  Post #: 15
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