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  • #46
    The beastmen were gone, but in their place stood a host of demonic legionaries, their black swords flickering with an ethereal flame. His village was gone as well, burned away into the demonic realm of the Blood God. His limbs were still torn away from him and blood spewed forth from his ragged wounds, but what was coming next Gregor knew was worse than any death he could imagine. The fate he had striven so hard to free Nicodemus and Lucas from. Any pain can be endured if there is an end in sight, even if that end is death, but as a demon stepped forward to loom over Gregor’s prone body and lifted its cursed blade above its head, he waited to hear the damning words that he knew, deep down, would be his epitaph and his eternal sentence. Whether in this dream or sometime in the near future he knew it would come.

    “Blood for the Blood God. Skulls for the Skull Throne.” The demon rasped and the demon blade descended.

    Gregor felt a momentary pain and then fire enveloped his vision as his head rolled clear of his destroyed body. Gregor felt himself being lifted by his hair to dangle in the air before a cheering crowd of demons. As he stared out through the flames that were consuming the skin from off his skull, his executioner turned him so that his gaze rested on the empty eyes that stared out from behind a golden mask that wept bloody tears from its hollow sockets. Gregor knew this face, and he tried to gasp in surprise before he realized his mouth was no longer connected to his lungs. His fleshless lips and withered tongue tried to form the name of his killer.

    “Aantar!” His mouth spoke the name even as the flames consumed his eyes and turned his tongue to ash. The last thing that he heard before the fires ascended and all he felt was heated anguish was the mocking laugh of his demonic foe.

    “I am coming, mortal!” The laugh echoed throughout the flame-filled eternity that awaited him. He tried to scream but he couldn’t, he had no breath to scream with, and no mouth that would respond to his commands.

    All that remained was the fire.

    Gregor lurched upright, a dry scream tearing itself from his ragged throat and causing him to wince with pain. For a few moments he could still feel the heat on his face and the sweat continued to pour off his brow. Then his eyes focused on the spartan stone wall in front of him and he began to remember. A dull ache radiated from his right hand and he felt a strange weight there that registered somewhere in his fragmented brain. He remembered fighting on the roof of the abbey. He remembered the fire that had washed over his men and the screaming that had followed. He remembered Maurice bending over the skull and muttering his prayers and incantations to free its owner from his captivity. He remembered the demon that had sent fire cascading towards him right before he had blacked out…

    A soft hand on his shoulder caused him to twist in his bed and reach out to grab a slender wrist. His head threatened to detach and his vision swam with blurry motes gliding across his sight like strange fish.

    “Ssshh!” A quiet voice reached across the void to touch some fragment of his frayed nerves. “Gregor, you’re safe!”

    “Lynne!?” His voice was a whisper, and it sounded wrong. His mind finally began to register the pain his body felt. Thousands of cuts spread across his body and each one ached with a liquid fire that spread through him. He tried to move his hand with the weight on it but it wouldn’t respond, instead hanging limply by his side. The soft hand moved up to touch the side of his face but he pulled back involuntarily. The sudden motion caused the black dots in his vision to expand and engulf him. He twisted and fell back into his bedding and remembered nothing else for some time but the shattered visions of nightmares mixed with the sounds of reality that occasionally fought through the horrified dreams.

    Sometimes the voices would filter through and warp his fever dreams. At times he watched Lynne being torn apart. Other times it was Nicodemus who was dragged from his horse into the frothing masses. The dream replayed itself over and over again. Each time he thought it was nearly over it would reset and begin again, and each time it did the pain grew more intense, the fires hotter, the fear deeper. In all of them Aantar’s face loomed large and his words echoed inside of Gregor’s skull.

    “I am coming, mortal!”

    Then, after what seemed an eternity, he opened his eyes and the world no longer blurred and spun around him. He pushed himself up only to fall back weakly on his blankets which were drenched in what he assumed was sweat. In a chair beside his bed Lynne sat wrapped in a wool blanket, her legs pulled up so that her head could rest on her knees. She was breathing softly and whimpered occasionally as the demons danced their horrifying jig behind her eyelids. Gregor reached a shaky hand out to press it against her forehead, which seemed to have a calming effect as her body relaxed against his touch and her small cries subsided.

    Pushing himself to his feet, Gregor found he was able to stand for a few moments without aid. His right hand felt awkward and he looked down at it to discover a metal gauntlet had been placed over the appendage. He tried to pull his hand free but the article refused to yield and in his weakened state he did not feel up to challenging it further and instead left it alone. He realized that he was ravenous with hunger and cast about the small room hoping to find something edible. He discovered a dry piece of bread and a pitcher of water on one of the small tables in the middle of the room. As quickly as his shaky joints would allow Gregor devoured the morsels and guzzled water like a madman. The sound and the activity must have woken Lynne for when he turned he found her staring at him, a sad smile playing across her lips.

    “How do you feel?” She whispered.

    “Very weak, and hungry.” Gregor replied, shuffling back to his bed and collapsing upon the mattress. “But alive, I suppose.” He grunted.

    “Yes, you have Maurice to thank for that, he is the one that worked that miracle that you wear on your hand.” She pointed at the gauntlet. Gregor raised it to inspect the craftsmanship. Maurice had said he was a smith of great ability and the work on the gauntlet was a testament to this claim. Gold filigree graced the edges of each plate that was meticulously melded together to give the impression of dragon scale and the fingers looked as if they were actual flesh and bone but simply made metallic. Gregor flexed his hand and watched as the gauntlet responded more like a second skin than a piece of armor.But something troubled him as he caught Lynne’s face while he inspected his hand.

    “What is it?” He asked without looking at her. There was a pause where she didn’t speak. Then there was a small exhale and she reached over to take his un-armored hand.

    “Maurice said that during the battle your were touched by some kind of demon fire. He tried to stop it and was able to save most of your body from its effects… but your hand was corrupted by the dark magics… So he put that gauntlet on and used his magic to contain the warped flesh and prevent it from doing you further harm.” Her voice was tense and she paused occasionally as she searched for the right words. Gregor flexed his metal hand again.

    “So can I ever take it off?” He asked quietly. Lynne’s eyes tightened and her smile faltered. She quickly shook her head.

    “No, if you do the corruption would spread and contaminate your whole body. It would fill you with unspeakable pain until you went made from it. You were lucky. It only touched your hand…” Her voice trailed off suddenly. Something in Gregor’s memory pressed on his consciousness, something urgent.

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    • #47

      “What aren’t you telling me?” Gregor finally turned to face the elf. She tried to look away but Gregor raised his metal fingers and gently pulled at her chin. He felt a cold tinge of sadness when he realized that he could not, nor would he ever feel her skin with that hand ever again, the dead metal prevented such pleasures. Lynne’s eyes welled up with tears and she shook her head, forcing his hand away. The memory continued to press in his mind and suddenly the images of the battle burst into fresh wounds before his eyes. He saw in his remembrance his final soldiers as they held out against the demons. His proud knights who had followed him through hell and back. Their precious blood slicking the stones of the abbey roof. Then, he remembered the flames that washed over them, the sickening screams as their skin rippled and changed before his very eyes.

      “Lynne, where are my men?” He whispered, his voice a dark shadow of rage. Lynne’s sob cut through the terse moment of silence as it stretched out between them.

      “Maurice did what he could for them..” she cried, “but the majority were too far gone and so he put them out of their misery. He managed to save some… he… he… encased them in the same kind of armor that you wear on your hand.” Gregor stared numbly ahead, his hands falling away from Lynne. Once again his vision swam before him, but this was not brought on by any fever. He struggled to rise to his feet.

      “I need to see them,” he grunted as he rose, the sensation of spinning grew with the effort he gave simply in standing. He felt the cold sensation of his weighted right hand. The dead feeling that *****ed at his hand and the vile sense of something slithering beneath his skin that lay locked behind the gauntlet’s interior. Now that he was aware of its purpose, he loathed the metal glove that had saved his life, that was continuing to preserve him against an unspeakable taint. He hated it because he knew he would never be rid of it. A small prison had been erected around his hand and would forever bind him to the taint of Chaos. He would never be free. He clenched his fists and felt the metal groan beneath the pressure. His vision tilted due to his exertion and he felt his knees buckle underneath of him. Lynne leaped to her feet to help steady him before he fell.

      “How many of my men still live? How many of my knights?” He breathed. Lynne shushed him as she sat him back on his bunk.

      “You still have two full regiments from the ones who were fighting on the fields. Along with your villein soldiers you still have a decent standing army, though not a large one…” Lynne winced under his weight as she eased him down onto the bed. She hesitated before continuing. “Of those knights that fought with you on the roof, you and Gesreau survived… Maurice was able to save seven of your men who fought with you. Those men are encased in the magical suits of armor that he constructed for them…” Gregor gasped as the effort of simply sitting down caused his lungs to burn. In his blurred vision he thought he saw something strange about Lynne and the way she clutched herself as if to ward off some unfelt chill, her arms winding protectively about her midriff.

      “Gesreau must want us to leave soon.” He grunted through the wave of nausea that spread through his stomach.

      “He did but once again Maurice intervened. He required that we be allowed to stay until you and your men are completely healed.” Gregor nodded.

      “Were we successful in our goal?”

      “Maurice says so, the elf is free from his prison. But we encountered far heavier resistance from the demons than he expected. He will not allow us to do the other rituals here… he says he will not lose any more innocent blood in this endeavor.” This cut through Gregor’s labored breaths and brought focus to his words.

      “What innocent blood was lost?” He asked. Again Lynne paused before answering.

      “The demons were able to force their way into one of the safe rooms in the abbey… one of the three that they use to house all of the villagers and citizens when they are under siege… They burst their way in and…” Suddenly her tears were renewed and she couldn’t finish her sentence due to the wracking sobs that tore out of her throat. Gregor reached over and pulled her to him, at first she resisted but then she folded into his arms and lost herself to her wailing cries. Gregor couldn’t find anything to say, the rage he had felt before only grew and washed over him like a cold blaze that sucked the warmth from his eyes.

      “There were children in that safehold…” Lynne whispered as her sobs began to subside.

      “Did anyone….?” Gregor tried to ask but couldn’t bring himself to finish the question.

      “No one survived, they left none alive. Every body was torn to shreds… I have only seen such violence in one other place, and never against helpless children.” She lifted her red-rimmed eyes to stare into Gregor’s face, he couldn’t return her gaze. “I had always thought that I had seen the deepest bowels of hell when we marched to the Blood God’s throne… but these images have seared themselves into my mind and I will never know peace so long as I live because of what I have now seen. Hell does not exist in some distant realm of fire anymore. Not for me. For me it has become the tomb of those innocents that lie slaughtered beneath us…” Her voice quavered and she lowered her face to Gregor’s chest. Her hand began to stroke her midsection. Gregor reached down and lifted her chin to look at him again.

      “We will not risk another attempt then. Maurice has said there is another way. We will march to the Abyss and free Nicodemus and Lucas in that way. I swear I will not let another drop of innocent blood fall!” As he spoke something seemed to rumble from without the keep, like the sound of rolling thunder but it shook the stone walls about them. Gregor stared around and for the first time realized that there was no window in the room. From out in the hall he could hear the muffled sounds of men in armor running past.

      “What is going on?” His eyes narrowed as he tilted his head to listen to other sounds that began to filter through the heavy stone that surrounded them. He heard now the sound of trumpets and drums above them, as if someone was calling the Basilean armies out to the walls. Lynne remained silent.

      “Lynne!” He cried, taking her by the shoulders and shaking her gently, which caused his head to hurt from the effort. “What is happening out there?” Lynne stared at him quietly for a few minutes, opening her mouth several times before finally speaking.

      “A few days after the battle with the demons, an army of undead appeared outside of the city. It was huge and spread itself out in order to lay siege to the fortress. The outer walls still hold, but we are already severely weakened from the demons, and now the dead have come to bury us, it seems. The Basileans don’t know where this army came from, as they have never had any kind of encounter with the undead this far into the wildlands…” She spoke quietly, as if already resigned to the fate that she saw before her.

      “A few days after the demons attacked this army showed up?” Gregor’s eyes widened. “How long have I been asleep?” Lynne shook her head before answering.

      “Several weeks, my love. The demon magic almost killed you, it still may if you don’t rest.” She reached up and pushed Gregor back into the mattress. It was a testament to how weak he really was that she was able to do so despite his efforts to fight her. As the effort of resisting took its toll Gregor finally subsided, breathing heavily. As he was recovering, Lynne cried out sharply and clutched her stomach.

      “Lynne, what’s wrong?” Gregor turned on his side and reached out his good hand to her.

      “I’m afraid that I have something else to tell you. Gregor…” She gasped as the pain began to ebb away. “Something that will make the doom before us all the more darker in contrast with its light. I’m afraid you have a heavy burden to be placed on your shoulders with what I am about to tell you.” She sat down in the chair and leaned back. For the first time since he had awoken, Gregor really looked at her. The simple cloth dress she wore draped off her frame lightly, and as she leaned back he began to see the slight bulge of her midriff that extended out from her thin frame. A mixture of disbelief and strange elation welled up inside of him but was quickly crushed by despair brought on by their present situation.

      “You don’t mean…?” He asked, his voice a barely audible whisper.

      “Yes, Gregor.” Lynne smiled. “You are going to be a father.”
      ​​​​​​​

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      • #48
        This is so good ! I'm realy loving this story.
        It's great that you are developing the characters and not just teling a story (that is a great one).

        I would Like to have your writer skills, I have the imagination but I lack the skills to write stories.

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        • #49
          Thanks! I've enjoyed writing this story and I need to get back at it, but I've been really busy of late and haven't had the time.

          I'll post another chapter later this weeks.

          Again, thanks for the kind words, they help motivate further writings.

          Comment


          • #50
            11

            Into the Storm

            Daggon stared out into the darkness. Sunlight had not touched his face for several weeks now, and he was beginning to forget the brightness of the noon-day sun. For what now felt like an eternity he had fought and hacked and crushed the freshly animated corpses of his fallen soldiers and those of the local populace that had been birthed by dark magic. Skeletal warriors thrust rusted spears at him which be blocked easily, bringing about his own blade to hack through their frail constructs and send them to the ground in a heap of bones that only rose again shortly thereafter when wisps of green magic would wash over them.

            His soldiers fought in shifts, their superior martial prowess allowing them to keep enough pressure on their foe to allow them to take turns sleeping and eating between bouts of combat. However, the toll had already begun to show on their now gaunt faces. They were drawn out and exhausted by the countless days of endless battle. The undead legions arrayed against them were too much for them to make any real progress.

            Daggon had hoped to make a speedy retreat back to the Basilean fort in order to warn Gregor of Aantar’s return but when his army had come within a few hours’ march of the outpost they were met with the implacable wall of undead that had spread out under a darkened and bruised sky. Even now Daggon could see the abbey keep that was the center of the Basilean stronghold and their goal. It was so frustratingly close that Daggon wanted to scream at times. He had thought of jumping on the back of Archaiadynami and flying over the wall of bone and rotting flesh that separated him from his friend, but ghostly wraiths and spirits flitted through the air, their haunting voices crackling with malevolent energy. They flew about in such great numbers that Daggon did not dare attempt such a suicidal attempt as to try and break through on his own, instead flying interference from time to time in order to stave off the ghostly assaults from above his own troops.

            “Hold the line!” Daggon growled, stabbing a broken spear through the pustulent eye socket of another zombie. He raised his shield and pressed against the tide of corpulent flesh that threatened to overwhelm him and his soldiers. Drawing his sword from its scabbard, the elven prince threw a practiced cut across the top of his shield. He threw another blow and another. Each one landed with a drilled precision that even this butchery could not lull him into abandoning, even though it didn’t matter how he threw his shots he knew it would connect. The dead were not concerned for fallen comrades or even their own self preservation, they threatened to overwhelm with sheer weight of numbers. What was really frustrating was that Daggon knew the corpse he cut down now would only rise again in a few minutes to renew its assault on his shield wall.

            In the weeks since they had begun this fight they had made almost no progress towards their goal of the Basilean walls. All that they had managed to do was get so stuck in that the dead masses had managed to encompass them so as to cut off all forms of retreat. Daggon slashed through another foetid zombie and clapped the soldier to his right on the shoulder, indicating that he was pulling back into the center.

            Daggon grunted as he pulled his way through the protective shield wall and looked around at the circle of his troops fighting against the swaying ranks of dead men trying to claw, bite, or mangle their way through the armored figures standing against them. Daggon shook his head in amazement again at the resilience of his soldiers. These elves had fought through the infernal realms of chaos in order to recapture four lost souls, they had lived out a similar scenario to the one which they were currently passing through. They had battled amongst the fires of hell and now they cut down the damned souls in purgatory. Daggon marvelled at their capacity of these warriors, their lines unfalteringly spearing their enemies on the ends of long polearms and forming together to provide cover to their brother or sister beside them. They were martial perfection embodied.

            Yet even these soldiers grew tired, even they felt the pull of their wounds and the exhaustion brought on by lack of sleep and proper food. Their supplies had already dwindled down to almost nothing. Soon they would be forced to begin slaughtering the horses in order to stay alive and have something to eat, but that wouldn’t last much longer. They had lost almost a quarter of their total numbers in the monotonous fighting. The unwearying dead were relentless and even these near perfect soldiers made mistakes that occasionally allowed one of them to be pulled under the crushing weight and grasping hands of dead flesh. The hardest thing about that was seeing these fallen friends rejoin the swarming masses to try and crush the life out of their former battle brothers and sisters.

            Daggon noticed a section of the shield wall begin to falter. Some overtired spearman had allowed the tip of his weapon to dip too low and been pulled off balance when the zombies had rushed in and impaled themselves upon it and then rushing backwards like the tide, pulling the spear with it and in turn the tired elf holding it. Daggon rushed over to relieve the exhausted individual. He sighed as he pushed the burning sensation in his own tired muscles out of his mind and took up the appropriate stance to help defend the inner circle.

            ****

            Proste stood partially concealed in the shadows as Gesreau bellowed his anger at the figure standing across the table from him. Gregor stood stoically, withstanding the verbal abuse and at some times nodding in agreement with what the High Paladin screamed at him. Occassionaly the young knight’s gaze would flicker over to Proste as if questioning his presence in the otherwise secretive meeting, but he did not open his mouth to protest, nor did he argue with Gesreau’s harsh words. In fact, the stranger barely reacted at all besides the sometime flexing of his hand encased in a metal gauntlet, as if it was bothering him.

            Proste did not worry about Gregor’s slight attention towards him, ever since he had saved Gesreau on the roof of the abbey from the demon fire Proste had become the High Paladin’s shadow as he went about his business throughout the outpost. He had been privy to Gesreau’s private councils and even some of the most sensitive transactions of important information. So far none of it had been useful to Proste, but he felt the masked whispers calling out to him in his mind, telling him to bide his time. Proste’s fingers itched after so long of not giving into his murderous desires. He satisfied his urges with the rodents and small animals that infested the keep, but it was not enough. It was a handful of water to a man who was dying of thirst, enough to sustain him but not enough to satisfy. Soon, the voices cooed, but not yet.

            “Your presence has brought us nothing but sorrow and death.” Gesreau’s angry voice cut through Proste’s distractions, forcing him back into reality. “I would hand you over to the enemy if I thought that it would do anything to save my people!”

            “And I would go, gladly, if I felt it would, too.” Gregor’s voice was soft, and tired. His face was gaunt and drawn after weeks of being forced to lie in bed while the she-elf tended to him. Proste licked his lips at the thought of the succulent elf’s supple flesh and her statuesque beauty. She would be a delicious prize to carve. This thought forced him to suppress a mad giggle, reducing it to a wide grin that caused Gregor to narrow his eyebrows at him. Gesreau was not about to allow the interloper a reprieve, however, and continued on with his fierce tirade.

            “My men are dying for your precious friends! As it stands our food stores are plentiful, and the walls are holding, but my men are falling by the dozens. Every hour I have to inform some other family that their son or daughter will not be coming back to them, or worse, I have to tell a wife and her children that their father is dead. All the while you sit in this keep, lazing away your days as if there is not an army of the dead without these walls! You snore through the mornings and into the evenings as if you were on a holiday! You, sir, are a coward!” Gesreau’s stinging words cut through the terse air with the force of a ragged knife edge, tearing at Gregor’s chest and leaving behind a rough hole. Proste could practically smell the despondency in the young warrior.




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            • #51
              Gregor looked terrible. Stubble had built up around his face and his eyes were sunken and yellowed with exhaustion, when he walked it was only at a shuffling speed, his legs and frame still weak from his ordeal with the demon fire. Proste watched as his countenance fell under the renewed onslaught of Gesreau’s words. The psychopath smiled as he watched the discussion play out in front of him.

              “Maurice is absent while he tends to your fallen soldiers, completely ignoring his own faithful followers!” Gesreau snarled. “I’ve half a mind to throw you to the corpses battering at our door anyways!” Gregor stared at the floor shaking his head.

              “Does this fresh batch of your holy disdain have a purpose, High Paladin?” The two men stared at one another balefully across the table. Finally Gesreau looked down at the table and stabbed a finger onto a rough outline of the fort and the surrounding area.

              “Your men are undisciplined and won’t follow my orders.” He barked, biting off each word as though it tasted bad. “I have given them direct orders to sally out from the side gate in an effort to break through the undead lines and make a break for it, hopefully taking at least some of the enemy with them, yet they refuse each time. I need you to talk some sense into them. This could save lives!”

              “The reason they won’t listen to you is because you are ordering them to commit suicide. I will not have them throw their lives away on some whim that you think might work in drawing away a portion of the enemy and deplete your stock of fighters even further than it already is.” Gregor continued his star into the top of Gesreau’s head. The older warrior snarled and threw a few scraps of paper and maps at the younger commander.

              “You people are a blight on my existence, on top of being worthless you are hopelessly selfish and arrogant to boot! My patience for this is fast running out!”

              “How do you know that this army is even after us? What proof do you have that we are its intended target?” Gregor shifted his weight on his weakening legs.

              “What reason should I have to doubt such? The demons were brought by you, perhaps the fel energies from that abominable ritual drew them like flies to a rotting corpse. All I know is that we have never had any such issues with the undead in these parts until now. Our quarrels have been in keeping track of the Ogre tribes to the north and the occasional Orc raiding party. Now my men have been slaughtered by demons, corpses, and there were reports of northmen coming down before the undead arrived!”
              “I assure you, Paladin, that neither I nor my men have any conscious guilt of bringing this army to your door. We are grateful for the refuge granted by your walls, but we will not throw away our lives on a needless display of bravado!” Gregor slammed his fist down on the wooden table. “Once my people would have gladly done such a foolhardy thing and songs would have been sung of them for their bravery. ‘For the Lady’ they would have cried and into the rotting masses they’d have charged. Perhaps it is this reason that I and my men are the last of our kind, but I’ll be damned if they throw away their lives in such a futile gesture!”

              “It seems survival has blunted your courage, then.” Gesreau sneered. “You are all cowards, then? Your ‘men’ are worthless on the walls, they don’t know how to fight if they are not astride their steeds. Your bowmen are weak and lack focus. Your footsoldiers that follow you are undisciplined and dangerous to have fighting by my men’s sides. You hang off of our hospitality, eat our food, and depend on us for your survival, and yet you offer nothing in return. Very soon my patience will have ended, young interloper, and I will visit swift justice on you and yours if these conditions do not change.”

              “Is that a threat, Paladin?” Gregor’s voice was ice.

              “You know damn well that it is.” Gesreau returned Gregor’s glare. “For now, I bide my time, for your judgement is not in my hands. Not yet, but soon…” The silence stretched out between them. Proste’s fingers were burning to act, his knuckles bled from the effort of gripping his blade he held hidden behind his vambraces so that he wouldn’t draw it and let loose the crimson tide boiling in these two impotente mortals.

              “Why is it that whenever I find you two together there is a threat of imminent violence between you?” A voice boomed from the doorway and Maurice stepped through into the feeble light of the single lantern set upon the table. His great, feathery wings enveloping him like some large cloak, masking his silvered armor beneath.

              “My lord.” Gesreau’s voice was filtered through gritted teeth. “These cowards are not helping with the defenses and they refuse any command that I give them. We should be rid of them and spare ourselves the drain on our resources.” Through all of this, Gesreau’s eyes never left Gregor.

              “It seems you are doing a poor job of utilizing our resources as it is, Gesreau.” Maurice’s voice boiled like a hidden storm. “I have listened to enough, you will not give such foolish commands to Gregor or his men again, or you will answer to me. Do you understand Paladin? Nod if you comprehend what I am saying. I do not want to hear your voice at present.” Gesreau’s eyes smoldered as he inclined his head ever so slightly. “Good.” Maurice stepped forward and placed a hand on Gregor’s shoulder.

              “Come with me.” He said and turned to walk out of the room. Gregor stared a moment longer then followed the Elohi.

              As the door shut, Proste stalked up behind Gesreau whose fists were shaking with suppressed rage.

              “It seems as though our Master Maurice is blinded to the wickedness presented by our ‘guests’” Proste whispered. “You are right to worry for him. You cannot trust these outsiders. These filthy immigrants who intrude on your safety and trample your deserved rights. They bring hell and its armies to your door, they invite it into your home, and then have the audacity to refuse to do what you tell them? Lord Maurice is too kind hearted a soul to do what must be done. You must be his sword of righteous justice.”

              Gesreau’s fists stopped shaking and he focused on the door through which Maurice and Gregor had left. Finally he let out a long sigh and shook his head.

              “Follow them, Proste, find out what Maurice is telling him, and more importantly find out what he is telling Maurice.” Gesreau’s voice was weary with resignation. Proste grinned wickedly and slipped back into the shadows.

              ******

              Maurice descended deep into the bowels of the fortress. Gregor followed along silently for some time, staring at the angelic being’s shoulders. The silence bore down on him and finally he could bear it no longer.

              “Your Paladin wants me and my men dead.” He uttered into the growing darkness surrounding them as they walked further down a narrow staircase leading below ground.

              “I know.” Maurice’s voice was quiet.

              “What are we going to do about it?”

              “For the time being, nothing. You shall not do anything, specifically. He is my responsibility.” Maurice’s words were tired.

              “Why does he hate us so much?” Gregor asked.

              “Because you do not believe as he does, and that challenges his faith. You are different, but even more than that, he fears that you may be right and that would destroy the world that he has so carefully constructed around him. His faith has sustained him through countless battles, the death of three children and a wife, and the betrayal of a close friend. If you are right, then all he has fought for has been a lie and that would destroy him.” Maurice’s voice echoed slightly as they entered into a much larger chamber from the narrow staircase. Gregor paused at these words.

              “I hadn’t realized that he had gone through so much.” He whispered.

              “You think that you alone hold the lion’s share of grief in your short life? Anyone who has passed through as many decades as Gesreau is bound to suffer and deal with grief, it is an inevitable part of your mortal journey, and that doesn’t change when this sojourn is done, either.”

              “I wish I could find comfort in his beliefs, though. I am left bereft of comfort in my own grief. I do not have a comforting lie in which to place my faith.” Gregor spoke bitterly. Maurice laughed, but it was a cold laugh devoid of mirth.

              “You have your own comforting lie, only you find refuge in bitterness.” Gregor looked as though he had been slapped. “I am a servant of a god, do you really think I would be on your side of this argument?” Maurice didn’t even bother to turn and look at Gregor’s reaction.

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              • #52
                “I was betrayed by my goddess!” Gregor sputtered. “I have fought against legions of a bloody god bent on nothing but destruction! Why should I worship, or have faith in anything that views us mortals as anything more than a tool for its own ends?” At this, Maurice stopped and turned to face him.

                “As I recall, your goddess was also the one that gave you the direction to the blood god’s throne, she is also the one that the elven woman you love worshipped and it was through her that she gained the ability to weave magic. Magic that saved you and brought you to this world. You see her betrayal as something terrible and evil, but did she not try to save at least a portion of your people along with her own?” Gregor stiffened under Maurice’s stern gaze. “You see only the bitterness and the disillusionment of those actions that have lead you to this point, you choose not to see the good in your path, and if you are not careful that darkness will consume you.” Maurice smiled.

                “In all of my millennia of existence I have come to realize one thing: That even the gods are temporal and fallible. Yet somehow the universe continues to exist. There is still hope and love and things that are worth fighting for. There must be a higher power that guides even our deities to their appropriate destinations and keeps the world and our existences in balance. Shadow cannot exist without light, even though it is loathe to admit such a fact, and yet light could potentially exist without shadow, even though it would be a hard way to live, and you would be essentially blind without shadows to give depth to everything. Thus, the light allows the shadows to exist because without it we would never see what is before us, we would not struggle, we would not learn. We would not appreciate the gift that we are fighting to win.”

                “And what is that gift?” Gregor asked sullenly. Maurice’s eyes did not waver and even in the darkened cavern in which they then stood Gregor could see the smile radiating from his eyes.

                “Salvation.” He said and turned to walk away, tapping the floor with his sceptre which had appeared in his hand. A bright blue flame erupted from around the sceptre’s head and illuminated the darkness with a bright, blue light that caused Gregor to recoil and place his hand up to cover his eyes from the sudden brightness. Maurice chuckled and motioned for Gregor to follow him onwards towards a door at the far end of the stone room. Gregor muttered under his breath but did as he was bid.

                Once at the door Maurice stooped and grabbed the latch, he motioned for Gregor to be quiet as he lifted the handle and pushed the door inwards to reveal a small stone room with several slabs laid out. Maurices sceptre illuminated the room and showed several armored figures lying on top of these slabs. The armor was intricately worked and traced with filigree and strange runes. Golden masks covered the figures’ faces. Off of the shoulders of the majority of the figures long wing like appendages draped down to brush against the floor. Gregor recognized the craftsmanship, it was the same as that which had been worked on his magical gauntlet he now wore.

                “Are these….?” He began, but found himself unable to speak.

                “Yes,” Maurice finished for him, “these are your men, the ones that I was able to save from the demon fire.” The Elohi moved around the slabs and brushed his hands over the metal as he described their functions to Gregor. “The armor is made of a special kind of material known as Starmetal. It is an ore smelted from the remains of falling stars. It is very susceptible to enchantment and a worthy medium for my magics that allow me to seal in the warping effects of the demon fire. Unfortunately I am only able to contain the warping effects, I cannot stop the terrible things happening to their flesh. I have only suspended the change. If they were ever to leave this armor the fire would consume them and they would die a horrible death. This armor is nearly impervious to harm, however, and should protect them for several lifetime’s worth of service.”

                “You mean that they are trapped in there?” Gregor asked. His gauntleted hand itched at the thought, knowing what the answer was before even asking the question. His hand would never be free from its metal cage.

                “No, they must stay in the armor, or die from the effects of the demon fire.” Maurice nodded solemnly. “They do not feel any pain now, they merely sleep while their armor gathers the necessary energy to wake them and bring them back to the world of the living.”

                “What a marvelous prison you have consigned them to.” Gregor’s voice was flat.

                “They are free to exit the armor at any time they might wish, I have not trapped them in anything, simply given them the choice to live or die on their own terms.” Maurice bent and lifted one of the wing-like appendages from the floor. “Unfortunately I only had enough Starmetal to form wings for six of them. The seventh will be forced to stay on the ground, but I shall work to make him effective in his own right. These other six will serve you in the same capacity that my Elohi serve me. I feel that in the coming days we will need all the good soldiers that we can find and your men have already lived through hell. They are strong, and they will serve well in these suits. If they choose not to, they can easily leave them by speaking a simple command that I will teach you. They have another opportunity to serve your cause, and from the way that your men treat you I think that this will give them some small portion of comfort.”

                Gregor walked up and touched the shoulder of the closest armored form. A cold sadness welled up inside of him as he felt the inert metal beneath his naked hand.

                “I know that I should be grateful, Maurice… But this is a hard thing that you have done. You have given them, and me, a gift that is both beautiful and terrifying. The price of this gift, I fear, is too high. I would thank you, but I do not know whether I should or if I should curse you for putting my men in this position rather than letting them simply die.” Gregor felt a hand on his shoulder.

                “I understand what you are saying, and I did not do this to earn your gratitude, Gregor. I did this because I know what sacrifice is, and what must be given in the coming days in order for that gift, that salvation that I spoke of, to be earned. I have been waiting through the centuries for these next precious few weeks that lie before us. I promise you that I have not been any more cruel than I must be.” Maurice’s voice was gentle. Gregor’s shoulders sagged and his breath left him deflated.

                “I am sorry,” the young warrior whispered, leaning down to place his forehead on the polished metal shoulders of the prone figure before him. Maurice turned and walked to the door, stopping at the edge of the doorway to turn his head back.

                “They will be waking soon. I felt it would be best if you were the first thing that they saw, so that you could explain to them their new situation.” Maurice did not wait for an answer but instead stepped forward and closed the door behind him.

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                • #53

                  Once outside of the room, Maurice turned to face the shadowed wall to his left.

                  “You can come out now, I know that you’re there.” Maurice watched as the figure of Zargazo materialized as if he had been part of the stone. The Elohi did not speak, simply wrapping himself in his wings in a similar fashion to what Maurice had done with his own. It was Maurice who broke the silence.

                  “You disagree with what I have done with those men?” He asked. Zargazo sneered.

                  “It is an abomination!” He growled. “The Shining Ones gave us these powers and you would bestow them on these outsiders? You would throw our holy gifts before these swine?”

                  “Do not presume to lecture me on the will of the Shining Ones!” Maurice’s voice crackled like thunder. “You do not know what you speak of! I will not have you tell your pathetic and narrow minded views in my presence and claim that they are the Shining Ones’ will!” Zargazo stepped back as a sudden flare of blue fire erupted from Maurice’s sceptre.

                  “You speak of me blaspheming, yet it is you who cheapens the gifts that they have given us!” Zargazo’s voice was low but it smoldered with anger. “Just because you are one of the holy number does not mean that you can presume to speak for all of the Shining Ones!”

                  “I do not have to speak for all of them.” Maurice’s fire died down but there was still a threatening growl to his tone. “I only have to speak for me. And I will not brook any dissention on this decision, is that understood?” Zargazo sneered at Maurice but nodded slowly. “Good,” and with that Maurice turned and walked back up towards the stairs and back into the abbey keep above. Zargazo sat a few moments in the darkness, the ambiance feeding his sullen thoughts until he heard the sound of giggling coming from the blackness near him. He quickly unsheathed his sword, spewing orange firelight into the dark corners and exposing a small man in a dirty uniform standing nearby. He wore the robes of a lowly lieutenant but his slovenly appearance seemed out of place with the normal clean and pressed look of most Basilean troops. His giggling did not cease at the sight of the angelic warrior wreathed in fire, instead rising in its manic cadence. The man clutched his belly with both arms and fell forward on his knees laughing.

                  “Why do you laugh, mortal?” Zargazo strode forward, obvious annoyance in his tone.

                  “I can’t help it!” The man gasped. “My master was right! I was so wrong to doubt him! He was right all along!”

                  “Who is your master? And what was he right about?” Zargazo reached down and grabbed the man by the front of his shirt, pulling him up to look the Elohi in the eye while he spoke.

                  “Ah,” the man sighed and rubbed his arm across his mouth to wipe away the spittle from his laughter. “We will get to that, soon enough. For now it seems that you and my master have a similar desire, and he has the means to help you achieve it, if you are willing.”

                  “What does your master know of my desires?” Zargazo sneered. “What would any mortal know of my desires!?” He raised his blade to point it at the man’s throat.

                  “Oh, my master is no simple mortal.” The man breathed. “And he knows of your discontent with your Lord Maurice.” The man stopped as another bout of giggles tore from his throat. “He knows how to rectify these abominations, your choice of words, not mine, in the other room and remove the blasphemer from your path. You said so yourself that what he is doing is in direct violation of the Shining Ones’ wishes, didn’t you?” Zargazo slammed the frail mortal into the flagstones at his feet, cracking the stone and causing his chuckles to turn into wheezing coughs punctuated with guffaws of mirth.

                  “You speak of heresy, soldier!” Zargazo screamed bringing his sword around in preparation to deliver a deathblow. “Your sentence will be carried out immediately. What is your name, so that I may report this discipline to your commander.” The man took a deep breath to calm his laughter before speaking.

                  “My name is Proste, and I don’t think you will kill me. Especially once you hear my Master’s offer.” Zargazo hesitated. “If you’d like, hear me out and then kill me. It is not heresy until you accept it, after all isn’t it?” The flaming blade dipped slightly.

                  “Speak, then.” the Elohi grunted.

                  “Excellent.” Proste purred.

                  *****

                  Outside the fort’s walls, the Liche stood surveying the battle laid before him. To his far left the elves stood their ground against the persistent waves of zombies. To his right the walls of the keep stood mocking him. His forces were numerous enough to have overwhelmed the defenders several times over, yet he was forbidden. His mistress had commanded him to act as a decoy to give her and her lover Aantar the time they needed to arrive at the Abyss before the human warriors. For some reason Aantar had insisted that certain members of the human and elf armies be allowed to live and arrive at the Abyss, he said that they had a vital role to play in the events to come. The Liche did not bother to try and understand such nonsense, he simply did what he was commanded to do by his mistress.

                  Above his head ghostly spectres hovered, ensuring that the elven dragon rider could not reach the keep before he was allowed. To his immediate right stood a beautiful predator. A vampiress from Lisbeth’s new coven stood impatiently twitching as she toyed with the sword at her hip. Her alabaster skin was flawless and her hair fell in a dark braid down the her back. She and the lady Lisbeth could have been sisters. Lying next to her was the prone form of the great undead dragon that the Lady had raised from the depths of the ancient king’s tomb. It sat with the same stillness as the Liche.

                  The Liche was not prone to such mortal tedium such as boredom or impatience. Time was an illusion designed to control mortals and he had long since shrugged of such minor constraints. Yet there was a sudden sweet tang in the air, some stirrings of great power that were focused in the bowels of the abbey keep before him, that caused something to shift within him. The feeling wasn’t what one could call anticipation, but rather a macabre parody of excitement much like the zombie’s false parody of life that caused his nonexistent pulse to quicken.

                  “It begins, soon.” He rasped. Turning, he nodded to the vampiress who smiled and let loose a bloodcurdling scream that sounded more like a predatory howl. She leaped onto the back of the undead dragon and began channelling ancient mystical power to link her mind to that of the dragon’s so as to facilitate her commands. The ancient dragon corpse rose to its full height and bellowed its challenge into the bruised sky. The disorganized spectres floating above suddenly coalesced into regimental ranks as if they had been awaiting just such a command. The Liche would have smiled had he possessed the ability to do so.

                  Now the assault began in earnest.

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