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.
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 >