Berserker

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Berserker

Post by Guest on Tue Apr 24, 2012 10:23 pm

Eckhart felt sick, as he usually did when entering the castle. As loyal as he was to the Lord of the Black Sands, something dark crawled and writhed about inside him whenever he was in the man's presence. Not that Eckhart was a perfect or even moral man under any definitions, but Gammon, the Demon Lord, took being "evil" to extremes that made even the most heartless and bloodthirsty men cringe. Inside, the castle's floor and walls were a dense black material that seemed to absorb the lighting from the braziers positioned every few feet in the hallways and took every inch of heat from within the walls as well. Stifling a shiver, his metal bound boots made heavy clinking sounds on the polished obsidian as he sauntered with more confidence than he felt, deeper into the fortress.

Arriving to his Lord's chambers and after a few solid knocks, he was finally admitted into the evil man's presence. Eckhart was a tall man, solidly built, towering over the other man in a physical sense, yet Gammon's whole demeanor and aura of authority was enough to dwarf the general. The room had one lone torch within, and as large as it was, the blackness of the decor still swallowed every inch of the light that was not necessary; details were a frivolous thing not entertained by this Lord. Still, from what he could see, the walls were sparsely decorated and a humungous bed dominated the right side of the room, banisters holding up dark, purple and blood red velvet curtains - both colors almost black in their darkened tones. A tall window sat on the left wall, with the Lord standing before it looking out at the desolate and storm cloud shadowed land beyond. It was noon when he arrived, which made Eckhart swallow thickly to realize how much darker this place would get at nighttime; a blackness so deep, it probably warped a man's sense of existence.

Turning around to greet him, eyes black as ink with red irises turned amber in the dim lighting, the Demon Lord gave him a large, illustrious smile. "General Eckhart! How good of you to answer my summons! I have a new assignment for you but before we get to the nitty gritty, how goes the war?" he spoke with the echoes of several voices speaking at once, some deep and graveled in tone and others high and womanly, all of them blending together in a monstrous harmony.

Madness filled that grin as he stared at the general fiendishly, his youthful features, well groomed with golden eyeshadow and dark eyeliner making him look almost feminine, if not for the heavy brow-ridge and large nose that dominated his face. The velvet cloak he wore draped over him, all the way to the ground, shoulders topped with spikes and large feathers, and elegant, manly hands emerging from the sleeves with long, pointed nails on each finger. His exposed stomach and chest were slender yet muscled, a thin trail of dark hair dusting above his groin, disappearing beneath his trousers, and a golden ring put through his right nipple glistened in the available light. The entire package was alluring, tempting and sensual and yet at the same time made him feel sick with fear and shame.

Without missing a beat during his quiet inspection, he answered, his deep voice, normally making other men seem girlish in comparison now seemed unnatural and bizarre when compared to the Demon's multiple voices. "We have overtaken the Gillians and the Welks and have squashed all rebellions in their territories. Our forces are moving steadily north and we should reach the capital by the Tide months, as planned, my Lord."

Stalking forward, like a large and dangerous cat, the Lord made his way closer to Eckhart, now standing merely a foot or two away, his closeness only increasing the level of intimidation and seduction radiating from his being. Looking up at the general with a wicked grin, the voices echoing from Gammon's throat asked, "And the recruits?"

There was absolute delight in his master's anticipation of this response and it was another thing that filled Eckhart with an eerie chill and made his stomach revolt in disgust. Gammon didn't use regular soldiers, instead, he infected the strongest and most able-bodied men in the newly conquered territories with his blood, turning them into shadow-monsters that never died. Gammon had difficulty trusting people and preferred to take the entire choice away from those who might abuse his generosity in letting them live. Thankfully, those who lived in the Black Sand Isles, having already declared allegiance to their Lord for several years, were absolved from this paranoid distrust. Still, the human forces on their side were dwindling as the battles raged on, and their warriors died, until Eckhart found himself mostly shouting orders to undead shadows rather than real men.

Keeping in a sigh of discontentment, Eckhart said, "We have added 60,000 more Shades to our numbers."

Gammon stuck his tongue out and bit it, smiling gleefully in triumph. With him being this close, Eckhart could now see that the Demon Lord's tongue was forked and all of his teeth were sharpened like a garwolf's. "And the Gillians are tall too," he said in approval, walking over to a dark, blackish red cabinet and pouring himself a glass of a thick, sickly green liquid and taking a tender sip. "It'll be a great advantage to add that height to our forces. Now, about why I called you here..." Walking back over to Eckhart, with glass in hand, his demeanor changed to become more hungered than before as he spoke of his new desire, the tones of his voices sounding eerie as his voice lowered. "I'm rather lonely, in this castle by myself with nobody except Shades to play with. Since I'm going to be ruling the whole world soon, I've been thinking a lot about my future. About producing progeny. Actual brood." As opposed to the shadow-clones he turned other men into and disgustingly called his "children". "Since you're right on the frontlines of newly conquered lands, I figured you were in the best position for this task."

"Sir?"

"I want you to find me a bride," the deeper echoes of his voices sounded louder than the rest as he spoke this sentence, his red eyes seeming to flare bright as freshly shed blood. "The perfect companion for your Lord. Can you do that for me, Eckhart?"

There was the sense of being admitted into his Lord's confidence, as if a lot of trust weighed on him being awarded this task and he felt honored to be chosen for it. He couldn't help it, despite the rabid, bloodthirsty light in his master's eyes. "Absolutely, my Lord. I will find only the best."

"Good." And just as simple as that, the moment was over. Gammon turned away, striding back towards the window and drinking thoughtfully from his glass, casting Eckhart out of mind, simply confident that the man would perform as expected. "Then you are dismissed. Keep moving north and continue on as planned. We will launch the attack on the capital city of those pathetic sunshine people on the eclipse during Tide Month. The frilly bastards won't know what hit them." He let out a mean chuckle, his forked tongue sticking out in excitement as he laughed at the landscape outside his window, no doubt imagining the whole world corrupted and twisted in his image.

Taking that as his cue to leave, Eckhart murmured stout agreement - love of war and bloodshed; it was one of the things he would always admire and agree with his Lord about - and turned to head for the door. As he turned the handle and opened it, the echoed voices addressed him once more and he glanced back. "Oh, and Eckhart?" Gammon purred, looking at him from over a shoulder. "Remember: I like them young."

With a shudder he couldn't contain, Eckhart nodded his assent and left the room, trying his best not to run sprinting for the castle gates like a little boy scared by the dark.

***
The sun shone high in the sky, seagulls looping and swaying overhead, like ghosts over the field of water. The massive ship rocked with the motions of the waves but by now, on the very last leg of his journey and nearly to the port which he could see in the distance, Rek had gotten used to the movement, his body automatically adjusting to the sway. The air smelt crisp and fresh, tinted with saltiness and now with other, more human smells as the harbor drew nearer. 3 months on the seas and he'd been ready to get off, bored by the endless ocean and suffocated by occupying the same spaces as the other soldiers who rode this vessel. But now as land came into view, he realized he wasn't ready for it. Fighting wars over the ocean in the lands to the west and now they were coming to more lands wrapped tightly in conflict. Against his will, his blood began to pound heavily, excited for more combat, even though he was growing wistful for the months of quiet mornings, sweat stink and drunken sea shanties.

Another warm breeze came flowing over the railing where he stood, watching the ship's progress, blowing the loose strands of hair from his face. Most of his dirty blonde hair was tied back in a tail at the nape of his neck, but a few small portions of it were teased free by the ocean winds. Small, blue eyes always filled with a stern look, squinted in the sun, a serious frown on his lips, surrounded by a halo of facial hair that covered his chin and upper lip. At 30, he was at his prime, still attractive, although he never though of anything except war now, with a couple scars here and there that spoke of the many battles he'd been in. With broad shoulders and average height, Rek didn't look like much, but when he pulled out his axe, then it became a different story. In some countries, his nickname was "Death Angel" - "angel" for his fairer hair and good looks and "death" for the trail of slaughter he left behind everywhere he went. In other places, they called him "Mad Angel" for the madness that sometimes took over him during battle, his fear nonexistent, turning him and his blade into an unstoppable force rather than a man of flesh and blood. Either way, he had a reputation for spilling blood and not only was it something he was good at, but if Rek was honest with himself, it was something he enjoyed as well.

"I hear they're not men but demons made of pure shadow." A small group of soldiers was slowly walking towards him and he caught the end of one of the men's statements as they drew nearer. Rek rolled his eyes as this superstitious nonsense was brought up again. For 3 months, he'd had to deal with these rumors swelling like rotted meat in the sun, just blistering and getting more ridiculous by the day. "Swords swipe through them like cutting into empty air and they disintegrate when struck, only to form again in another place and keep on charging."

"And every state conquered adds another hundred thousand to their ranks."

Rek couldn't take it anymore and without turning spoke loud enough to be heard. "Bullshit. If you believe that, then it's time to let go of your mother's apron strings and actually learn to walk in the big world, boy." The man he addressed was a burly soldier, more muscle than fat but wide of girth, with his balding crown shining in the sun.

"You don't believe the stories then? It's all we hear from the men coming across the ocean. They say the army of the Black Sands is indestructible." One of the younger men spoke up and Rek had the urge to pinch the lad's cheeks for being so naive and stupid.

"Well, that's unfortunate, eh? If the battle is already lost and we're on our way to join the opposing side, then you might as well throw your weapons down now. It's not like you've ever used them before anyway."

The older man wasn't pleased by Rek's doubts and pointed a defensive finger at him. "You calling me a liar? One of my cousins saw them with his own eyes and I believe 'im! They're not human, I tell you!"

"Right," Rek said with a shake of his head. "Will you be joining the Shade Army right away, then?" The ship had docked already and they were lowering the plank, so he was ready to get off, plenty bored with this conversation and the other men's defensiveness. "Human or not, even shadows bleed. Good day, gents." He gave them a fearless smirk and sauntered away, spitting into the water as his feet touched the boardwalk.

The dock was full of activity, other ships lined up along the waterway and men busy loading and unloading goods, the air thick with smells and sounds, filling Rek's head with noise and dusting his tongue with an acrid taste. With his large battleaxe against his back and his pack under his left arm, Rek chose a direction and began walking, going in search for good food and a place to stay for the night before he headed out to join the nearest military effort. He'd see for himself these demon creatures they all said were conquering the East and then he'd cleave them with his axe until all the boogeymen were nothing but meaningless bumps in the night.



Last edited by Ten on Sat Apr 28, 2012 11:51 am; edited 1 time in total

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Re: Berserker

Post by herladyholiday on Sat Apr 28, 2012 10:55 am

Antioch - Lunae, 2nd Sun of Harvest Month, Reign of Emperor Eos of Helios

Though it was only the dawn of Harvest Month, the halls of the Temple of the Great Mother were chilly from drafts. Aethusa Maris hugged her grey wool shawl closer over her shoulders and hurried her steps to the library where her successor must be, and where a fire was sure to be going.

Over the past few years, much of the Temple’s grounds had fallen into disrepair, though the old woman had no time to worry over such matters these days. A stooped old woman growing fatter with age, there were few markings that distinguished her as the High Priestess to the Great Mother, Supreme Matriarch of the Sisterhood of the Light. Her coarse black woolen robes were embroidered at the sleeves and hem with fine gold stitching, scripture of the Old Religion that charged the Great Mother’s chosen daughters with the task of healing the ailments of her people and defending them from darkness.

Around the Matriarch’s neck was the legendary pendant known across the lands as the Heart of the Mother. Five large tear shaped diamonds set within a golden sphere, the pendant emitted a soft glow in even the darkest of spaces. The Matriarch indulged in no other adornments, too old and proud of her calling to indulge in flippant vanities. The Heart of the Mother had more than a symbol of legend, though this fact was known to a rare few outside of the Sisterhood. Imbued with powerful scrying magic, the Heart of the Mother enabled the High Priestess to communicate with the Temples of Light in each state of the Helionic Empire: Gallia, Welkaen, Pyri, Legon, and Antioch.

Aethusa only wished she had good news to share.

Though the library doors were kept well oiled to be silent, Theia knew when the Matriarch was present, just as she knew the High Priestess loved her like a blood daughter, though their interactions always kept to decorum. Theia smiled in the direction of the Matriarch and said, “Fare well the setting sun, Matriarch.”

“Her Light keep you, Prelate.” Aethusa returned the smile in spite of her heavy heart. Theia was always such a darling sight to behold. Aethusa suspected there was Old Fae in the girl’s blood somewhere with those oddly colored eyes like pale amethysts and inky hair that spilled in thick wild curls of bluish black. Theia had always been a slight girl, and the growth spurt they had waited for never came. Though the habit had died down when Theia was ordained Prelate, there were still a few sisters who had been initiates with Theia who still fondly called her Tink, after a children’s story about a young woodland boy and his fae friend.

In her own youth, Aethusa had passed as lovely, pretty even. But Theia Sarrasri, Prelate of Antioch, was as beautiful as the princesses of fairytales. One day, she would make a fine High Priestess, and a healthy dose of romanticism would no doubt be restored to the role and to the religion as a whole; men would write ballads of Theia’s beauty, her grace, and her pure heart.

But perhaps not so much of the fact that the youngest Prelate in the history of the Sisterhood had performed more successful amputations and surgeries than any other sister. Her skillful hands and expertise with battle wounds were sought after by the strongest armies of the Empire.

Aethusa rested a hand on the young priestess’s shoulder and gave it a squeeze. “We have news from the Prelate of Welk.”

Theia’s gaze fell to her lap; she could not force herself to look back up. Aethusa continued in spite of her successor’s silence.

“The people of Welk fought bravely. Our sisters saved many lives. They defended the Temple to the very end.”

“Are they safe? Tell me they are safe, Matriarch. Tell me they are at least alive… Imprisoned, tell me, please…”

“Theia, you do not truly wish that upon your sisters.”

It could not be helped. The first tear broke free from her and Theia knew that many more would come that night along with terrible dreams.

“Imprisonment by that demon spawn would be a fate worse than death for our sisters.”

“I’m sorry, Matriarch… I just …”

“We must be strong, Theia. Be proud your sisters died as heroes.”

Theia closed her eyes and tried to steady her breathing.

“And what of Gallia? Any news from Prelate Nya?”

“No news.”

“No news? Could that be a good sign? Perhaps they have managed to flee … Perhaps they are already on their way to Antioch?”

“Wherever they are, the Mother will guide them.”

“We should try Nya again. If it tires you, Matriarch, I can do it. Please, let me try Nya again. I know she must be safe. Perhaps she needs our help, perhaps I can …”

“No. Scrying still takes too much out of you. You must conserve your energy, Theia.”

“Yes, Matriarch. I’m sorry.”

“No, sweet child. I, too, am shaken by the fall of Welk. But we are charged with our duty and must carry on the best we can. Let us keep hope that brat princeling will heed our council soon.”

Theia’s eyes widened. She looked around the library for any potential eavesdroppers and hissed, “Matriarch, please, you must mind your tongue regarding Emperor Eos…”

“Once a brat, always a brat.”

“Matriarch…”

“Yes, yes, you’re right of course, Prelate. Get some rest now, my child. You are still riding to Pyri tomorrow? I take it you will still not be talked down from this.”

“You said it yourself, Matriarch. We are charged with our duty.”

“You are too smart for your own good. But, Prelate. Theia…”

“I will be safe, Matriarch. Please, do not worry for my sake. I will return as soon as the condition there has improved.”

Aethusa sighed, turning away from Theia to look out of the tall windows of the library. “Let us pray conditions will improve.” There was still an orange glow to the sky, but another dark night would inevitably come to pass. “Tide Month is coming, my child. And its eclipse does not bode well for us.”

Theia bit her lip, unsure of how to respond. It was unlike the Matriarch to speak in riddles. Aethusa shook her head and said, “Get some rest now, Sister Theia. You exert yourself too much.”

“Yes, Matriarch.”

“May She smile upon you,” Aethusa said.

“May She smile,” Theia said.

~

Night comes. She was but a speck standing on immense, jagged cliffs of black, glassy stone. Below, crimson waves of frothing blood crashed against the shore. The air was thick with the stench of death. Above her the full moon blinked slowly, morphing into the eye of a giant serpent rising from the tides. The serpent unhinged its immense jaw full of sharp silvery teeth, slick with greenish venom. A forked tongue, thick as a tree trunk, lashed out from the dark depths of its mouth, aiming straight for Theia. She was desperate to scream but could not make a sound.



Antioch - Soetern, 21st Sun of Harvest Month, Reign of Emperor Eos of Helios

The midday sun ignited the sky-scraping monoliths that marked the roads to the four directional gates of Antioch. Its high walls and illustrious structures were carved from the same gold-hued limestone and gleamed especially at this hour when the entire capital stood silent and still. The people of Antioch kept their heads bowed, eyes closed, and hearts hopeful until the gong sounded from the Temple of Light. “May She smile upon you,” the people said to finish their prayers before going about their ways.

The ritual was one of the few vestiges of the Old Religion that lingered in the capital; everything else about Antioch was distinctly progressive and modern. While its neighboring states fell waste to war and famine, Antioch stood as a beacon of progress and wealth in the Helionic Empire. It was said that Antioch was impenetrable, no longer solely protected by prophecies of the Heart of the Mother, but by monumental wealth and manpower.

It was a blessing that the safety of Antioch was unchallenged by its people, as the emperor enthroned within its walls was ill fit for war. Though commendable in height, Emperor Eos of Helios still had a boyishly plump face, even at the age of 27. His pale blue eyes were narrowly set with any hope of appearing cunning was dashed by nose that was too wide and nostrils the size of grapes. Nonetheless, Eos was the exemplar of Antioch courtly fashion, bejeweled at every opportunity, a ruby adorning the tip of each fine braid his golden hair was coiled into. Wherever he walked, the gold-set rubies clinked like a purse full of enough coins to feed a small army.

Unlike his great great grandfather Hyperion I, founder of the Helionic Empire, Eos lacked the ambition for expansion and saw no purpose in wasting resources to defend distant, outlying states--especially when the heart of his empire was beating strong. Most of the citizens of Antioch knew little to nothing of the horrors that were occurring on the outskirts of the empire, not that many would have cared much about the bumpkins in the countryside.

Currently, the most pressing thing on the minds of Antioch’s citizens was to prepare for the Tide Month Festival, a week of celebration leading up to the moment when the pale moon would dim its light, humbled by the greatness of the sun. It was a joyous time of free flowing drink and rich foods.

The festival had been started by the Helionic royalty and had no place in the mythology of the Old, so while Eos disdained the sentiments of religion, he full heartedly supported the Tide Month Festival. Taking his afternoon meal, Eos was particularly patient as the Duke of Grado read the report from the festival planning committee.

“… And in conclusion the festival planning committee respectfully requests of his Greatness, the Most Supremely Eminent Emperor Eos of …”

Eos flicked his hand in the air and dabbed at his mouth with a heavy linen napkin before he spoke, “Yes, yes. Get to it. And note the haddock is a bit too greasy for our liking.”

“Yes, your Highness.” The Duke flipped a few pages in his diary and noted ‘Haddock, Greasy,’ before continuing. “The committee requests double the projected funding for the festival, seeing as the people especially need good cheer.”

“Double? And do tell me, Grado, why my people especially need good cheer?”

The Duke of Grado, a reedy, nervous man, fidgeted with his waxed moustache as he spoke. “Well, your Supremacy, as you know, the High Priestess of the Sisterhood of …”

“Great Lady’s sake, must we all have such long titles? I know who you mean. The old hag. Yes. What of her?”

“I do beg pardon, most Supremely Excell.. your Highness. But the old ha … the High Priestess is one of the few privy to the particularly gruesome details of the war waging in Welkaen.”

Eos snorted. “According to the old hag, it’s not just Welkaen under attack.”

“Indeed, my Emperor. The High Priestess has quite upset some of the other committee members with the news.. And though I believe that her intention was to turn the focus of the nobility towards the war effort, the majority of the committee felt that if anything, the tragic news heightened the need for an especially grand festival to ease the anxious public.”

Eos scoffed, picking at his teeth with a silver toothpick, its handle paved with tiny diamonds. “As if Antioch has seen any semblance of the violence of war.”

“Indeed, your Highness.”

One day, Eos would weed out every last relic of the Old Religion. Already under Eos’ reign, funding for the Temple of the Light had been more than halved. Faith was a tedious thing that slowed down economy--and the High Priestess of the Sisterhood of the Light was a right pain in his ass.

“And let me guess, the old hag is asking for a private audience again?”

“Yes, your Highness.”

“This is the third time this week.”

“She is very … insistent, my Emperor.”

“Tell her I’m busy. Meditating. Praying. Embroidering. Whatever it is that the Sisters of the Light spend their own days doing.”

“Yes, your Highness.”

“On second thought, tell the old hag that I’ll grant a private audience to the Prelate of Antioch, and her only.”

“The Prelate, your Highness? I believe she is still away in Pyri.”

“Pyri? What is our Prelate doing out in the middle of nowhere?”

“Presumably meditating, praying, and embroidering, your Highness.”



Pyri - Soetern, 21st Sun of Harvest Month, Reign of Emperor Eos of Helios

From the entrance to the makeshift infirmary, Hesiod, Lord of Pyri, watched the young priestess’s steady hand moving deftly with a needle, each stitch neat and precise. It was the fifth wound the Prelate of Antioch was stitching in succession; the hour had yet to pass noon. Her current patient had taken his blow to the gut--from the looks of it by a broadsword. Hesiod had witnessed the priestess push the soldier’s intestines back into place without flinching. He understood now, why the Sisters of the Light donned such somber black robes.

It was to hide all the bloodstains.

Desperation had driven Hesiod of Pyri to seek assistance from the Sisterhood of the Light. Under the reign of Emperor Eos, the religious order had fallen out of public favor. Their ideology was thought to be simpleminded and their practices in the healing arts outdated. Severely under-funded, it was said that the best healers now came out of Antioch’s elite university which accepted only nobly born men. The problem was that these elite healers refused to travel outside of Antioch, rendering them completely useless to the war efforts.

While the Lord Commander had his own medics in his army, all of his men, from foot soldiers to generals were spread far too thin already. While the Sisterhood was usually reserved for healing the rural common folk, desperate times called for the darkly robed Sisters of the Light to walk with men who held the fate of the empire in their scarred hands.

When his most trusted advisor and best friend since diaper days fell to a fever from infection, it had been the Prelate of Pyri who suggested that Hesiod send for the Prelate of Antioch. But when the wee girl had first arrived, Hesiod had the mind to send her straight back, but the young priestess set to work before his men knew what hit them. The priestess worked relentlessly, and Hesiod noted that it was during her healing work that the Prelate showed the confidence befitting a queen. Otherwise, she was a shy creature who hardly ever spoke above a whisper.

Through skill alone, though her pleasing looks did not hurt her, Theia Sarrasri, the Prelate of Antioch, earned the respect of his men and Hesiod himself. In the few precious weeks, she had given invaluable training to his own medics and even managed what had been deemed a lost cause by nursing General Arden through his fever and cleansing the infection. Now that Arden was well enough to take command again, albeit without the use of his left arm, Hesiod saw no need to endanger the life of the Prelate any further by keeping her at this post, though the fee to the Sisterhood had already been paid in full for her month-long services.

The possibility of holding the border to Gallia was growing more grim by the hour. The enemy moved at ungodly speeds and the rumor that was spreading like wildfire was sapping the morale of his men before they even saw battle. How were mere mortals to fight nightmarish creatures that could not be killed? How would a pale, wide-eyed girl child with such promising lips fare against such monsters?

Hesiod scowled and walked towards the Prelate. She had just finished with the wounded foot soldier and the man seemed in better spirits already. As Theia bent down to wash her hands in the basin by the soldier’s bed, Hesiod heard the priestess whisper to her patient, “Keep the wound clean and do not juggle knives anymore.” The foot soldier gave her his best smile.

Hesiod scowled some more. “Behold the morning sun, Prelate,” Hesiod said.

Theia smiled warmly at the sight of the ruler of Pyri. During her days here, she had found him to be a truly noble lord of his people. Theia dried her hands on a clean cloth before folding her hands over his. The gesture of blessing was meant to embody the embrace of the Great Mother, but Theia’s hands were comically small against those of the exalted warrior.

“Her Light keep you, Lord Hesiod.”

Hesiod kept scowling.

“Does something trouble you, Lord Hesiod?”

“Yes. I wish you to return to leave as soon as possible.”

“Leave?” Theia released Hesiod’s hands and took a step back.

“Yes.”

“To where, exactly, my lord?”

“To Antioch, of course, where you belong.”

“Oh?”

“We no longer have need of your services here and I find it distasteful the way you soften my warriors into puppy dogs. I also…”

Theia pursed her lips as if she tasted something quite sour and huffed. “Lord Hesiod, you know as well as I that I am needed here. If this is some ploy of yours to send me away just when things are…”

“I wish you would not interrupt me, Prelate.”

“Apologies, my lord.”

“I also do not wish to pay your fees.”

“My fees? But. Lord Hesiod, surely you are not sending me away at such a crucial time over a matter so insignificant as fees. I know you. You value the lives of your men over your own.”

“You flatter me, but I grow bored of this womanly chatter. You are no longer welcome here, Prelate. Leave as quickly as possible. If I hear word that you are still around tomorrow, I shall have my men escort you to Antioch. I will not accept any further discussion on this matter.”

“You do not have the men to spare.”

“Precisely. The lives of the men lost as a result of their missing brethren will be on your hands.”

“You do not mean this, Lord Hesiod. I don’t know what or who has put you up to this, but please, I beg you to be reasonable with me…”

“Prelate of Antioch. In case I have not made myself abundantly clear, I, Hesiod of Pyri, as Lord Commander of the Helionic Empire, hereby relieve you of your services in my charge and order you to return whence you came. Does the Sisterhood wish to defy the Helionic government?”

The whole infirmary had fallen silent and was listening in. Theia knew she could not win this battle without greatly insulting the Lord Commander’s pride.

Theia bowed deeply and said, “As you wish, Lord Hesiod. I will depart at once.” She left the infirmary without looking back. She needed time to think. But it seemed the Great Mother agreed with Lord Hesiod, as Theia saw an adept from the temple in Pyri, running towards her.

“Prelate of Antioch…” The poor girl was pale and out of breath.

“Sister, are you alright? Is all well at the temple?”

“Yes, yes, everything is fine, Prelate Theia, but Prelate Selene bid me to make haste to you, to inform you that the Supreme Matriarch requires your immediate return to Antioch.”

“The Matriarch has sent word?”

“Yes, Prelate Theia. She would only say that it is urgent and urges you to return as soon as possible.”

“I’ll ride immediately. Please send word I’m on my way… And please, please tell Lord Hesiod .. and Prelate Selena … Please, Dear Sister, tell everyone that … That I am grateful for the hospitality Pyri has shown me. And that … That I will keep you all in my prayers.”

Theia had not intended for the farewell to sound so final, and now she feared that she would weep in front of the adept. The adept smiled sadly, as if she understood all the things Theia could not say. “May She smile upon you, Prelate of Antioch.”

~

Inside the infirmary still, Hesiod was getting an earful from his oldest son, Marron. “You’re sending her away for her safety, aren’t you? Father, you know we need her here!”

“Not now, Marron.” Hesiod turned away from his son and began walking around the infirmary. The man’s stern face softened as he sat by the bedsides of his injured men and held the hands of their weeping loved ones. He stayed speaking with his people until the sun began to set. Exhausted, Hesiod and Marron returned to their castle. In his private quarters, Hesiod brought out a well aged wine and Marron knew the sign that it was time to speak freely.

Hesiod said, “I have hired a good man to take her back to Antioch.”

Though Marron had been seething with things to say at the infirmary, he found he was too tired to speak now. His thoughts felt thick and too heavy to pluck from the sieve of his mind.

It was his father who spoke again. “Do you know how old that child is, Marron?”

“The Prelate? No, sir. But regardless of how young she is, she is the Prelate of Antioch and is duty bound by that title.”

Hesiod laughed bitterly and ran his hand over his face, lingering at the thick grey beard that did little to hide the deep pockmarks on his cheeks. “Fourteen summers. She’s seen fourteen summers on this earth. That’s a year younger than what your sister would have been now, Great Lady keep her.”

Marron felt his shoulders slump. He knew what his father was getting at, of course, and he felt guilty for wanting the Prelate to stay. Still, Marron wanted to stay alive, too. The Squire himself was only in his twenties and longed to relish as many years as he could on this earth. One day, after this war, he wanted to visit Antioch and offer flowers at the feet of the Prelate of Antioch, to see her smile and outshine a clear summer’s day.

Hesiod downed the first glass of wine in an irreverent gulp and slammed his goblet against the table. Marron watched his father, but Hesiod’s gaze was directed out the window, towards the night sky, his thoughts even further away. “It goes against a soldier’s duty to send a young girl to her death, no matter what title she bears.”
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Re: Berserker

Post by Guest on Wed May 02, 2012 10:50 am

Gallia. After only a month of struggle, brought to its knees and decapitated. He remembered what it looked like before. The outer walls were the faces of flat-topped mountains, crags and natural outcroppings not even hinting to the city that existed within them. The entrance to the city was a fissure in the mountain leading through the center with access to the sky but with rocky overhangs on the interior, like open-air caverns. Long ago, these deserts had been covered by ocean, the seas retreating thousands of years ago and leaving behind it's salty treasures. Over the years, the people who settled here carved their presence into the stone interior, mining the rock salt they found within the core of the mountain and making their living on the precious substance that flowed from the earth in abundance.

Inside the mountain the sky could be seen through the winding crack that split across the roof. The floor of the caverns had a sunlight serpent snaking through, growing fat through the day and then slithering out of sight as the sun set. Most of the time, the dwellings remained in comforting shade, the stone shielding them from the elements, keeping them cool during the day and locking in the heat from their fires at night. The intricacy and detail of the rock carvings was breathtaking, pillars of peach marble, a hundred meters wide and almost as tall as the mountain itself, holding up the roof of the caves that were carved with vaulted ceilings. And everywhere, in tiered layers, were the dwellings of the people, carved from the stone of the mountain and still a part of it, keeping it whole, like branches all rising from the same tree. And in the middle, it's walls made of rock salt, was the Gallia Keep, the size and material it was made of attesting to the status of the Lord who dwelt there.

That's what it used to look like, before he came along. Gallia had been practically a fortress, the natural designs of the mountain and city entrance making attacking it very difficult - like feeding his men to the maw of the phalanx through a funnel. That, added onto the desert terrain with it's pale sands that amplified the sun's rays and the dunes that kicked up stinging clouds, should have been enough to discourage an army from trying to conquer the city. Lucky for Eckhart, despite his people being familiar with water surrounding them and the soothing darkness of the Isles, when they first landed on the shores of Gallia's territory, they'd consumed a few dozen small towns and farming communities during their march inland, adding to the number of shadow-monsters in their forces. They hadn't collected very many before finally reaching the desert mountain keep but with the tireless Shades attacking nonstop, it was only a matter of time before the Gillians caved to the practically untouchable enemy. Shades didn't die, being nothing more than the captured souls of men, carved and hollowed out to become puppets for his Lord.

Walking through the city now, Eckhart marveled at the destruction wrought: deeper caverns caved in, broken pillars fallen like massive giants lying dead on the battlefield, carvings cracked and smashed in, erasing any trace of recognition and obliterating fine, artistic details. And everywhere... the stain. In the early days after the Gillians' defeat, there had been lines of black criss-crossing the caverns, marking the mindless trails the demons etched as they wandered and explored their new home - or old home, as most of them were actually infected Gillians. Now, there was no sign of the virginal peach marble and rock salt except on the highest buildings that hadn't been touched yet, the rest of the cavern city painted in the black corruption. Below the General's feet, the ground looked scorched, and the buildings closest to him looked rotted, threatening to crumble and fall over themselves. On some of the higher tiers, he could spy some of the creatures scrabbling over walls and roofs, eagerly spreading their sickness further.

Those that weren't busy climbing the old structures either dug themselves pits in the now blackened sands, nesting for the day, or they stood just staring, waiting for the command to kill. Like birds roosting, thousands stood on every surface, staring with eyes that were nothing but white stars in the premature night of the caverns. Internally, General Eckhart was still creeped out by the sight of these soulless creatures, but since he was their commander and Gammon's representative outside of the Isles, he needed to maintain the ability to control them and thus, didn't dare show an ounce of weakness in front of those beady, empty eyes. As he walked further into the caverns, he passed two Shades that were shoving each other, fighting and scratching one another silently as the mindless creatures were wont to do when left without an avenue for their aggressive impulses.

"Hey! Knock it off," he commanded, his raspy graveled voice echoing in the caverns. He paused only a moment to make sure they obeyed, which they did without hesitation, turning to stand and quietly stare at him as he passed. Walking through the center of the mountain, his steps eventually entered the body of the snake made of the light that shone from above. Now, however, the light it cast was gray, sapping whatever color was left from everything it touched and producing a soft lighting that was enough to see by. Looking up, the winding snake-like crack showed the sky, the sun now obliterated by angry, black clouds that never rained. Just like home, he mused. Soon, the Demon Lord would corrupt the entire continent, turning it into a mirror image of the islands where he reigned as God.

Finally, the General reached the eastern side of the city and his silver armored boots crossed a threshold that the beasts' stain did not. Here, the architecture was still sound although crumbling on its own long before the Shades had arrived, with beautiful and arcane carvings marking the outside. He sneered as recognition set in: one of the putrid temples of those Light harlots. Eventually, he'd let the demons stain this as well, but for now, he left it intact because he still had business here. Entering the doors of the holy building, Eckhart loudly dragged what he could from his throat with a loud buzzing in his inner nasal passage before spitting the bitter foulness upon the cracked and decorated tiles underfoot. Those who congregated near the center of the room looked in his direction and a few of his men smirked at the gesture of contempt. Immediately, as soon as he saw the General, one of the smaller men in the group broke from the crowd and came shambling towards him.

"What is it Corr?" Eckhart asked, impatience and disgust filling his voice, ignoring him as he came to a stop, his way blocked by the scraggly Isleman. Eckhart's eyes were trained on the prisoner they had standing in chains in the middle of the cavernous chamber, anger boiling within him at the sight of her, defiance filling her features as their eyes met. Reluctantly, he drew his gaze away, glancing at the man standing before him in annoyance as the tiny weasel coughed raggedly, practically passing out in the process. Finally, when the fit ended, Corr's pasty features spread wide in a black-stained smile, his gums inky and his teeth like rotted pebbles aligned in uneven rows. So, while the General had been gone, he'd been partaking in his filthy habit again, Eckhart could see.

"I am pleased to see you have returned, General! And not a moment too soon! Since you're back, does that mean I get to proceed with the corruption?" the small, gasping and eager voice asked. The look in the man's eyes, which were deep-set and surrounded by heavy black circles, mirrored that of the Demon Lord's when he'd asked about the recruits merely two weeks before. The desire in the Lord's heart and this filthy scum's was the same in that regard, and although Eckhart wasn't safe to express his disdain for the practice in front of his Master, Corr was nothing more than a parasite he allowed to live out of necessity.

"You'll get your chance when I'm done with her," Eckhart said coldly, reprimand clear in his voice. "That is, if you have any vials left. What did I tell you about drinking it?" Corr's smile vanished, his mouth scrunching closed, as if that hid the stains on the inner edges of his lips. For whatever reason, Corr's fascination with Shades extended to an addiction to ingesting Lord Gammon's blood - the secret power of the Black Isle Army and what they used to turn regular men into shadow monsters. Although drinking it did not seem to change Corr into one of the beasts himself, it did have an averse affect on the puny man's health. The inhabitants of the Black Isles characteristic pale skin and dark hair was turned corpse-like in the small man and different parts of his body were becoming contaminated by the infectious blood. Even though Corr wore heavy rags that hid most of his skin, ever since Eckhart had become aware of his habit, the man's ability to walk properly had progressively declined for unknown reasons. Eckhart could only guess what was wrong but truthfully, didn't care all that much about the small man's well-being but although he disliked Corr, he was the most adept at handling the transmutation properly. Since conquering the souls of the men and boys of this continent was an integral part of Lord Gammon's plan, it was necessary to keep an unsavory individual like Corr around who could handle the task with such efficiency and... enthusiasm.

"I see the limp has gotten worse..." A flippant comment, but enough to get the slimy bastard to shy away self-consciously, giving General Eckhart the opening he needed to shove past him, proceeding to where his guest stood waiting for him in the middle of the chamber.

The ceiling above gave way to the sky with a clear, glass ceiling, normally letting the sun's rays shine down in a large, sunburst pattern. Now, however, the nature of the light filtering through the layer of clouds was so diluted, even though the hall was filled with gray illumination, the design on the floor was nonexistent. The light just wasn't strong enough to make the pattern on the ground. Something about that fact pleased the general greatly and he smiled with poisonous hate dripping through his veins as he approached the now defeated woman.

"May she smile upon you, Prelate," the General drawled out in smooth, mocking amusement. "Or however it is you dim-witted light people greet each other. I, personally, always thought such complex and exaggerated displays of respect to be monotonous and insincere. How fitting, then, that I didn't actually mean it when I said it." He let out a raspy laugh, languidly pacing a half circle around the woman as he spoke.

Somewhere in her middle summers of adulthood, the Prelate, whom he hadn't cared to learn the name of, was still a very beautiful woman at her age, with dark brown, shoulder-length hair and strong, brown eyes. General Eckhart, standing at 6' 3" was almost eye-to-eye with the tall Gillian woman, her back straight and her chin held high as she stared straight ahead in cold silence. Her hands were bound behind her back, heavy chains weighing her down to discourage any movement. Even as she pretended the weight of it didn't bother her, still standing proud and fearless in his presence, the General could see the tension in her shoulders trembling with the effort of keeping the facade up. The fact that she felt the need to even maintain appearances in front of him, told him that she was afraid and he enjoyed that a lot.

"I never liked the Old Religion," he said, his tone conversational as he lazily turned on his heel to start his sauntered course over. "First of all, you all give praise to a goddess and let women run the religion, which, is absolutely ridiculous." He released a haughty, raspy chuckle that was mirrored in a couple of the men present. "It no longer exists on the Isles, you know. Before Lord Gammon was even born, it lost favor with our leaders, and as soon as he came into power, every last trace of it was completely erased. It really wasn't difficult for the Islemen to shed those last vestiges of dedication and if you'd met Lord Gammon, if you knew the power he wields, you'd understand why. It is only a matter of time before even this continent loses it's religion and we expunge the memory of your 'goddess' and her acolytes from the hearts of these people.

"Do you know what happens when we conquer new territory?" changing topics, he kept his attention on her, looking for any sign of a response, even though there wasn't any. "The men and older boys of course get recruited to our armies - not literally; I'm sure you've seen them, your brothers and leaders standing outside, their souls lost and doomed to wander the earth as shadows," there was the slightest flinch from her, a twitch in her jaw and her blink slow and sorrowful before it vanished and she was stone once more. "But your women become slaves and the youngest children become indoctrinated in our culture and will be raised as Islemen." He paused ironically and thought for a moment, glancing at one of his higher ranked soldiers for back-up. "Of course... I suppose we'll have to call ourselves something else once we own the mainland." The man shrugged and Eckhart shrugged and smirked back.

"Anyways, you my dear, should be grateful," he continued, coming to a stop standing in front of her, his graveled voice coming out in a deep, rumbling purr. "You will receive an honor that no other woman of this continent has ever been graced with and only the highest of your religion will earn the right to this precious, precious gift. You will join your brethren in being blessed by Lord Gammon's blood." He gave her a charming, pristine smile and watched for a reaction as she finally met his gaze, staring into his eyes--

Eckhart blinked just in time but did not flinch as spittle dripped from his face, down between his eyes and along the side of his nose. With an amused sigh, he carefully wiped his face free with a gloved hand, turning to gesture at an eagerly waiting Corr - who was practically drooling over himself once he heard Eckhart start talking about the blood. As Corr rushed to get his tools ready, the General turned back to his prisoner, getting close to her face, their cheeks almost touching as he whispered, "All bravado is empty and pointless, sweetheart, for in a few moments, you will no longer have a will of your own or a desire to do anything other than obey my every word. You will be living but you'll never know the comfort of death. Where is your Light Goddess now?"

As Corr came forward, carrying his things, General Eckhart took a few steps back, lazily removing a small box from his belt as he watched. Normally, this entire ritual sickened him, but his hatred for this woman and all who stood for the Old Religion was so great, he was going to allow himself to enjoy this. Finally Corr stepped towards the woman, unsheathing an obsidian blade with a blood-red ruby in the hilt and tore a slit in her dark robes, high enough to bare a smooth, tanned thigh. Slicing a deep cut into her skin, thin ribbons of blood chased each other down her leg, but still no expression crossed her face. Eckhart took a few capsules from his box, slipping them under his tongue, his voice sounding distorted while he held them in place and asked, "Any last words?" Her response was to look away from him and stare off into space, proud and stubborn as ever. Sucking on the capsules in his mouth, he made a motion to Corr.

The filthy man smiled with ink in his gums and lips, his fingers trembling with ecstasy as he pulled the stopper from the vial in his hand. Tipping the small bottle over the wound in the woman's leg, a few drops fell onto the opening in her flesh, quickly mixing with her blood. Nothing happened and Corr stepped back, but Eckhart could tell by the way the minion watched her, the show wasn't over. Slowly, the facade began to crumble, her stony face breaking open to reveal a look of horror that was all internalized at the moment; her eyes grew wide and frantic, glossy and searching for nothing as things began to move and fall apart inside her body. Then marks, like black vines painted on her skin began to appear from the wound, tendrils of stained skin branching off of each other in a million directions only to rejoin in thousands of connections, soon painting large expanses of flesh black. Accompanying the rapidly changing skin was a chorus of crackling and snapping pops, like twigs thrown onto an angry fire, except more subtle, like haunted whispers echoing from her muscles and organic tissue.

Her body trembled, and she leaned forward slightly as if the weight on her shoulders and back were too much to bear, it taking every last ounce of strength to keep herself standing. Her mouth opened in astonishment, small breathless sounds of confusion coming from her throat as the stain moved down her calf over her foot and then proceeding to climb over her other thigh and fill up the other leg. As it traveled to areas of her body covered by clothing, the fabric was eaten by the stain, merely touching the corrupted flesh causing it to disintegrate off of her body. Eckhart only caught a peek at tanned breasts before they too disappeared in a blackness that light never touched, but he remained impassive to the proceedings, intoxicated by the capsules he'd taken and numbed by their gentle chemicals in his veins. Thus, he remained apathetic when screams were finally dragged from within her chest, the harsh sound cut off abruptly as her throat became covered in black, the stain gliding up over her chin and into her mouth like a backwards running waterfall. Her eyes bulged in her head, filled with a look of terror and her mouth became a hole in her face only distinguishable from the rest of the black mass by the white, triangle shaped teeth that lined her jaws. From her head, the sounds of bone cracking and splintering could be heard before two long, back-angled antlers sprouted from her crown, twisted and crooked forks branching from their main arms.

Finally, the crackling sound subsided and the newly born creature stood before them with the same looming, patient, purposelessness that the others possessed, seemingly waiting for command. And it truly was genderless, every sign of her femininity vanished, with nothing of her previous identity left except the somewhat slender frame and the height which had almost doubled due to the antlers. Every Shade turned out different, with their own unique shapes and characteristics - some with teeth, some with tentacles, others with claws, some tall, some really short, some with spines jutting from their forms and others with what looked like it could be fur but indistinguishable from the body which was nothing but a silhouette with mass. But most of them retained certain qualities that defined them as Shades, that being the skin, blacker than night, that never changed or produced any details, no matter what lighting was available; the genderless forms; and the small, white eyes that seemed to emit their own timid light. The black antlers were certainly a new feature he hadn't seen before... but her eyes...

"...Is it done?" Eckhart asked, uncertain if the process was truly finished. The thing's brown eyes were the same as the woman's had been, except now completely lidless and sunken in it's face. At the sound of the General's voice, it slowly turned to regard him in intense curiosity.

"Yes," Corr breathed in an awestruck voice, his eyes never leaving the creature that stood before them and his body articulating that sick sense of worship one might expect from him if there were a dazzling, sensual woman in the room to ogle.

"She keeps her eyes?" Eckhart asked, sneering. "Is that normal?"

"No," came the response, Corr slowly shaking his head with a small, secretive smile, his eyes never leaving the Shade as if the woman had turned into a goddess instead. "She's special... She's... beautiful..."

General Eckhart gave the man a frown that went unnoticed and, rolling his eyes, he abruptly swung his hand to smack the short man on the back of the head. "Knock it off!" the General shouted curtly, finally getting the attention of the slimy little bastard. "Get on with the other acolytes and when you're done, let them finish infecting the temple grounds. I want everything black by sundown." Rubbing the back of his scalp, Corr left to follow his orders, and the General turned to the other men, addressing no one in particular. "I'm sick of this Light-blasted place. Tomorrow, we march the rest of the Gillian Shades north to join our troops at the Pyri border. I'm done playing games with Hesiod and his gaggle of boys with swords and it's time we taught them what a foolish and deadly thing hope is. Lord Gammon wants to take the capital by the Tide Month, so we need to push our way through. There's not a lot they can do about the tainted land, so if we let the Shades lead the assaults and nest in their fields, we'll gain more ground and force them all back into the center of the continent. We'll cut these weak-minded people off from each other and all outside contact until they're nothing left but small points in a sea of black. They'll finally get to know what it's like to live life on an island!"

The men in the hall, invigorated by the transmutation they'd witnessed and exhilarated by his thunderous speech, let out a roar of battle cries in response to his words, the sounds echoing in the chamber and masking the sound of screams deeper in the temple's walls. The antlered Shade just stood and stared, thinking of nothing but blood and feeling nothing but a hollow hunger, while she awaited the command of her new masters.

***
This was an outrage. After traveling from the coast to Pyri where the latest battles were raging, Rek hadn't been there for more than a week before he was leaving again. And in the opposite direction from where he wanted to be. Traveling for a week through the Pyri territory, he and the rest of the soldiers from the western lands across the ocean finally arrived to the rural castle. Rek was never one to be concerned with status or signs of wealth, so as soon as he arrived in the midst of other soldiers, the air tainted with the scent of oiled metal, sweat, and blood, he'd been too consumed with adrenaline and battlelust to really take any notice of his surroundings anyways. As soon as he got the order to leave, however, he'd spent his last day there sucking in every detail he could, longing to remember it and already mourning his absence from the fray before he left.

During his time in Pyri, his reputation spread and he'd caught the attention of the higher-ups - particularly Hesiod, a man he immediately grew fond of and respected. Apparently, he was small potatoes compared to the local heroes and he only thought that because of how quickly they looked at his axe and then assigned him to escort duty. Alone, the ride to Antioch would take him a couple of days but with the child in tow, it would take him longer and he grew to resent the girl even before he met her for the time he'd lose in being kept away from the bloodshed. And she truly was just a child to him no matter what her supposed status or title was - Rek wasn't familiar with her religious order for it had never been an important part of his life, even though it did have a following across the water.

On his warhorse, a surly, copper mount named Eb, they rode across countryside during the morning, coming to a large wood near midday. Rek spared her no comfort and no words, stopping only when he felt it was necessary and pushing the horse to cross the distance as fast as it was reasonably able. Eventually, as the sun made it's descent, he had to concede to the fact that she would need to rest and it'd be easier to look after her and care for his horse if he made preparations while there was still light in the sky. Finding them a clearing among mossy roots and thick tree trunks, almost naturally sheltered by the brambles and rocks nearby, he slowed Eb to a walk before dismounting, turning to help the girl down from her seat.

"We're stopping for the night." Out of habit, he'd kept his silence until now, it just being easier not to open conversation, lest he let his derision show. Looking at her and feeling a bit uncertain what to do with her or how to handle her, his eyes wandered away from her as he casually rubbed at his nose. "Just... gather sticks for a fire or something." Turning away from her, he began to tend to his horse, making sure to use caution, since the beast had bitten him at least twice since he bought the damned thing two days ago.

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Re: Berserker

Post by herladyholiday on Sun May 06, 2012 12:28 pm

Gallia - Veneris, 29th Sun of Bloom Month, Reign of Emperor Eos of Helios

Deep in meditation, Nya Eir, Prelate of Gallia could hear the Matriarch’s voice like a brass bell in her head. The news of Welk was worse than they had feared. With the enemy battering down the doors of her temple, Prelate Dasa of Welk had described the forces of the Black Sands as demons without souls.

Now those demons were at the gates of Gallia’s main city. Nya thanked the Great Mother that during these dark hours, she at least knew that the initiates of her temple and the orphans in their charge were well on their way to seek refuge in Antioch. Dasa had not been afforded this boon; the attack on Welk had been completely unforeseen.

Nya found further peace in knowing that with the refugees from Gallia, Matriarch Aethusa would be able to present their case as irrefutable evidence that Emperor Eos needed to officially declare war against Gammond, Lord of Black Sand Isles.

The demons were more monstrous than anyone could have imagined. Any day now, they would reach the temple grounds. There was no more to be said between her and the Matriarch. Both women were too dignified for empty words of comfort.

But the women had faith. And their hope kept their voices unshaken and loving, without fear, as if they would speak again, without a doubt, very soon.

May She smile upon you, Nya Eir, Prelate of Gallia.

Nya whispered, “May She smile, Matriarch.”

Nya opened her eyes and rose from the meditating position. One of her acolytes stood at the doorway of chambers. Nya smiled fondly at the younger priestess, thinking of the days she and Dasa had trained together as acolytes themselves. She would hold those memories close; they would be shield her against even the vilest of demons.

“Prelate Nya, I have gathered the sisters in the main chapel.”

“Thank you, Sister Kavita. Let us not keep them waiting any longer.”

The atmosphere of the chapel was grave, but there was no panic. Even in crisis , the Sisters of the Light possessed the grace to pray for the fallen people of Gallia--and for the survival of those who were fighting on.

As the prayer finished, Nya knew it was time to offer her sisters her final gift as their Prelate: a choice. Standing before the altar, Nya raised her open palms skyward, a gesture of the Great Mother’s unconditional love.

“In the coming days, those will come who shall test our faith as it has never been tested before. What the weak of spirit call the Old Religion, we know as history, as truth. My sisters, those of you who wish to remain by my side shall fight to protect the sanctity of this Temple so long as there is breath in our earthly bodies. As long as we are standing, we will take in the injured and mend their wounds. Our Matriarch has decreed that no sister is duty bound to remain here. Should you wish to depart, you are free to do so. No matter what path you choose, may you walk in Her Light. May the Great Mother keep you in her eternal embrace. May She smile upon you, my beloved sisters.”

The voices of the sisters came in unison, a beautiful harmony of their unfaltering faith, “May She smile upon you, Prelate of Gallia.” Not a single woman moved from where she stood. Their expressions were solemn--not from fear--but from devotion, courage, unconquerable hope.



Pyri - Solis, 22nd Sun of Harvest Month, Reign of Emperor Eos of Helios

Eb hated the Fat One.

The Fat One was heavy and he smelled BAD. Of fire, smoke, cold hard metals, blood, and death. Eb wished the Fat One would fall and break his leg or that he was made of OATS so that Eb could eat the Fat One. Eb liked OATS. Eb tried to eat the Fat One as he was, but the Fat One tasted as horrible as he smelled.

Eb would keep trying. Eb was determined and brave.

But Eb would never eat the Glowing Brightly One, even if she was made of OATS, which she was not. Eb had checked with his smelling because Eb did not wish to bite the Glowing Brightly One.

Eb LOVED Glowing Brightly One.

Eb wished it was just the Glowing Brightly One riding him without the Fat One. The Glowing Brightly One smelled GOOD. Of sweetness, like SUGAR and APPLES. But she was not made of those things, either.

But sometimes the Glowing Brightly One would have the TREATS in her pockets and Eb LOVED the Glowing Brightly One like he loved RUNNING or SLEEPING, even EATING. When the Glowing Brightly One was nearby, Eb felt SUNSHINE deep in his bones, and Eb had not felt that way since he was a colt, RUNNING loose like a wild animal with his brothers and sisters.

When the Fat One would let them REST, the Glowing Brightly One would stroke him and speak with him in soft voice. The Glowing Brightly One had a smart mind, not like the Fat One. The Glowing Brightly One was almost HORSE. Eb could not follow all of her dumb human speak, but sensed that Glowing Brightly One was SAD deep inside.

Eb suspected it must have been the unpleasant and BAD Fat One for the Fat One made Eb SAD, too. Eb would try his best to comfort the Glowing Brightly One by biting Fat One as much as he could.

Even if he was not made of OATS.

~

So her traveling companion was a quiet sort of man. Theia was fine with that. She could tell she made him uncomfortable and that he did not know how to address her. Still, he was polite enough and she herself was a quiet sort of girl. At any rate, there was much that weighed heavily on her mind to keep her occupied. The failing health of the Matriarch was first and foremost. The command to return to Antioch during a mission was highly unusual.

The fear of losing the only mother she had ever known had the strings of her heart in terrible knots. As she dumbly gathered wood without much thought to direction, Theia thought of the woman who had given birth to her, a woman so unknown to her, a mother beautiful, cold, and aloof. And Theia wondered briefly if the woman was happy on the arm of her newest lord before her thoughts drifted back to the painful matter of the aging Matriarch.

And then there were the people of Pyri: Lord Hesiod, his men, Prelate Selena, her sisters, and…



… ?

Oh dear.

Which way was the campsite again?

Theia pulled back the wide hood of her black wool traveling cloak, standard issue of the Sisterhood, to get a better look at her surroundings. Even in dry weather, the sisters wore their hoods when traveling for the sake of modesty and deterring unwanted attention.

Though Theia was touched by Lord Hesiod’s generous gift of hiring a soldier for her journey, it would not have been unusual for a Sister of the Light to travel alone. There was generally enough respect left for the Old Religion that there was little threat to a sister’s safety on the road. Besides, everyone knew that a woman of the cloth carried little of monetary value.

The few acts of crime against a Sister of the Light were committed by those with a twisted hatred of the Old Religion, or simply the very worst sort of men who wanted nothing more than to hurt innocent women.

It seemed this corner of the woods was home to a prime example of the latter.

“Hello, pretty dove. I have been ever so curious what you would look like without your hood, and may I say, I am ever so pleased with the discovery, so pleased, ever so pleased.”

Theia forced herself to turn around slowly. Her instincts were shouting at her to not make any sudden movements and certainly not to run. Sure enough, the man who spoke was built like a predator, tall, sleek, and wiry. He sneered at her with dark burning eyes and a toothy smile stretched across his thin lips.

“It has been days, simply days since I’ve had company, pretty dove. I am ever so lonely out here in these woods. Nothing but drab little creatures to help me pass the time, such drab creatures, so very, very drab.”

He spoke in a near whisper, all the while tossing and catching a silvery dagger in the air like it was some child’s plaything.

“But you, my pretty dove, are far, far from drab. We shall have the most pleasant time together, I think, the most pleasant time, yes, ever so pleasant.”

There were remnants of a soldier’s uniform on his body that had not seen a bath in quite some time. On top of the faded and torn regalia, he wore a crude vest stitched from scraps of poorly cured animal hide, yellowy and translucent. Theia could not pinpoint exactly why the sight of the garment made her shiver.

She had heard tales of men undone by madness from this inexplicable war. But she felt, somehow, that this particular man’s soul had been lost long, long ago and the war was but a tipping point.

Theia stood still, hardly daring to breathe. While a Sister of the Light was trained in basic self defense--indeed, on her belt she carried a dagger of her own--she knew that she was no match for a trained soldier, especially a crazed one.

Time. She needed to buy herself time. And then…! Theia suddenly remembered that she was not alone. Surely, her companion was not too far away. Should she scream? But her instincts still said no, that any sudden movements and sounds would surely get her slain instantly.

The dark-eyed man now stood no more than a couple of feet away from her, stooping nearly in half to hold his face close enough to hers to kiss.

“No words, pretty dove? No songs for me? Don’t be shy, my pretty dove. I have been watching you, longing ever so to hear you sing, for you to sing me the prettiest of your songs, your very best song. Shall I help you sing?”

His breath carried the scent of rotting flesh and traces of something sharp, metallic … Red Amantis, a local mushroom known to cause temporary surges of energy, fever, chills, and hallucination. Theia tried her best to stand as still as possible, though she was shaking like a fawn. To her credit, she at least managed to speak steadily,

“May She smile upon you, good sir. My name is Theia Sarrasri, Sister of …”

“No!” The man hissed, pressing the point of his dagger against Theia’s temple.

“I said, sing.”



Antioch - Solis, 22nd Sun of Harvest Month, Reign of Emperor Eos of Helios

“Note, there are too many berries.” Emperor Eos pushed aside his plate holding a half-eaten tart. There was much sampling to be done before the Tide Month Festival.

“Too. Many. Berries,” said the Duke of Grado as he dutifully recorded so. Just then, Grado’s page came and whispered something into the Duke’s ear.

Emperor Eos waved his hand across the table spread with every sort of sweet treat imaginable. “None of these are quite right. We wish to sample a new set of desserts tomorrow evening.”

“Excellent decision, your Highness… Ah, and, also, I do beg pardon, your most excelle…”

“What is it, Grado?”

“It seems the High Priestess is still waiting.”

“Still?”

“Yes, your Highness.”

“You know what the problem is, Grado?”

“Problem, your Highness? This humble servant certainly sees no problem whatsoever in the glorious court of your..”

Emperor Eos flicked his wrist, a signal for silence.

“The problem is, Grado, that we are too soft with the old hag. We wish to honor the memory of my father, Grado, but our patience with the old hag is wearing thin.”

“Indeed, you have been most patient, your Highness.”

“Tell her she may return and be heard tomorrow, but only if she will speak no more of this supposed war with a demon king. What rot.”

“Indeed, your Highness, a most gracious decision as ever, your Highness. Granting her an audience will appease the more … conservative… members of the council who are still deeply fond of the old ha… Of the High Priestess.”

Emperor Eos snorted. “And, Grado, ask her where my… our Prelate is.”
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Re: Berserker

Post by Guest on Thu May 10, 2012 11:22 am

Eckhart hated this sunlight infested land. The clear running streams. The fields of golden corn. Towering trees of vibrant green. Fruits and flowers of red, purple, orange and white. That was the problem: too many Light-blasted colors! That and the sun which seemed eternally shining, radiant and blinding in the sky above. It was enough to give a man a headache just opening his eyes. How did these ridiculous people stand it? The few times it had rained on the shore during their campaign had been a blessing, the gray clouds and darkened, muddied ground reminding him of home but during the clear days, it had been torture just to take in his surroundings with a glance. Which was why he was pleased when they moved inland, watching as the Shades, infused with Gammon's power and their hearts beating with blood from the homeland, worked upon the land, turning it into a replica of the Isles.

Of course, things were a bit different from the Isles, the further inland they moved. At least with the desert terrain of Gallia, they could pretend the blackened sand, occasional twisted and leafless tree, and scorched rocks were home. As they moved north, more plant-life became visible, their varieties multiplying with every 10 miles. So, the black grass that started covering the plains they crossed wasn't like home, nor were the trees with thick, black trunks, leaves of dark gray, purple and bloody red, the fruits hanging from their branches marked with horrifying face-like features. And there were certainly no flowers on the Isles like the ones that darkened and became poisoned by the Shades' touch, seemingly still growing and yet turned maleficent in their rejection of the light that had born them. Even so, Eckhart was beginning to appreciate the newly transformed foliage, finding beauty in each gnarled root and decaying field, breathing deeply of the poisonous aromas and rotted stench they emitted due to their corruption. The darkly pretty surroundings also seemed to boost morale as well, the men comforted as they stomped over the corpse-like land.

Moving north from the now fully consumed Gallia keep, all Eckhart had to do was follow the trail, a thick, 7 mile wide strip of tainted land that the small force of Shades he sent to the border a month ago had left in their wake. The sky above was still sunny, but the black clouds seemed to travel with them, like a thick blanket unfurling over the endless blue emptiness. Even so, the storm followed and he led, with the sun shining ahead of them, seemingly fleeing from the darkness, so he still wore the protective eyewear he'd had custom made on the Isles - a pair of wire-rimmed glasses altered with lightly painted glass like the window of a high-class tavern. They did nothing to improve his appearance, making him look like an old man riding in heavy armor, but it helped soothe his headache and kept him from squinting at every blasted thing.

Glancing down and around himself, he once again took in the numbers of marching troops on either side of his horse. None of the men were comfortable with the Shades, despite not being threatened by the creatures, so, most of the human forces marched in a compacted, organized group surrounding the General and his mount. Knoll was a tall horse with a thick body and heavy hooves, his flesh pale and white, almost translucent, with red and pink skin coloring around his dark eyes and oval nostrils. He was a warhorse bred from Isle stock, a specific strain that was hairless, immune to most diseases and with canine teeth in the jaws, and he was trained to fight and kill in battle. Still, the horse's disposition was unfriendly at the best of times and thus the General was given a wide berth.

Looking around at the lumbering, crawling, mass of Shades, he stifled a shudder as the river of black writhed and swayed with only several hundred thousand points of light defining individual creatures. A few meters away from the main group of human forces, the General spotted Corr, a point of pale flesh and browned fabric among the living shadows. Shockingly, in the past couple of days, the weaselly man managed to creep Eckhart out even more than he already had. Ever since her transmutation, Corr had never left the Prelate Shade's side and strangely... she... It never left his, following him like a shadow as he tended to and herded the other Shades. Every time General Eckhart had a mind to glance over at the couple whenever they were camped for the night, he had to struggle against a wave of revulsion to witness small gestures of affection traded between the two. Normally, it was disgusting watching Corr congregate among the soulless creatures, talking to them as if they still had minds, or snuggling down to sleep in their nests with them at night. But now that he'd focused his attention upon the one, oddly antlered Shade, he'd reached a new low, his eyes lighting up at it's presence by his side, his hands soft and gentle when touching it and... he predominantly began spending his nights--

Shaking his head free of the sickening images and thoughts, General Eckhart spared the man one final sneer as while they walked together Corr laid an affectionate peck on the side of the thing's face and clattered it's sharp teeth together, staring with lidless eyes in pleasured response. Turning away, Eckhart decided that even though he preferred Corr's other disgusting habit to this new one, at least the minion was happy... if one could call anything that defined Corr's life of herding the undead and infecting people as "happiness".

A month and a half prior to the General's return to Gallia, he'd sent his forces north to the Pyri border where they decimated a village and turned it into a temporary headquarters. Riding up to the village's prairie gates now, from an embankment they were spotted by the man on guard, excitement defining his movements as he hailed his comrades below.

"Who is that son of a harlot ridin' up here on a big, white fancy horse?" the man hollered from the gate tower in a thick Isleman accent.

"It is I, General Eckhart," he shouted from the saddle, the horse fidgeting impatiently. "Open the Light-blasted gates, Terrien!"

"The General?" came the shouted response. "Are you sure you're 'im? You don't look like 'im! The General's more of a hoity-toity sort with a bit of a stick up his arse and an ego that could knock over a king! I'm sorry, sir, but you don't seem enough of a pompous ass to be 'im!" Eckhart raised his finger and opened his mouth to reprimand the man but was interrupted. "Try pretending to be somebody else!"

"Dammit, Terrien! Quit messing around and let us in! I've got 3,000 men and almost a million Shades out here who need rest after a 4 day march! There's a blasted war going on and we don't have time to stand here playing games all day!"

"Me Mrs. wouldn't like it, sir, for me to just let any ole smug bastard, pretending to be this or that general in through these gates!" Eckhart wanted to throttle the little idiot! He knew damn well who the General was! "I was charged by her most seriousness excellence, the warrior mistress Mauve to guard these gates from all lowlifes, imposters, and frivolous enemy messengers and it'll take a lot more than pity to get me to shake meself from that sacred duty! What is wrong with your eyes, sir? Are you wearing spectacles like an old man? Could you take them off, please, and lemme get a better look at your eyes?"

Scowling, General Eckhart complied, unwillingly playing the weasel's game and giving the man a death glare once his tinted glasses were removed. Terrien stared for several seconds before finally shaking his head. "Nope! Sorry! You look nothing like the General! Are you certain that you don't want to try to be somebody else?"

Absolutely fuming, the General finally snapped, roaring up at the younger man in an enraged voice, shouting so violently that spittle rained from his lips. "BLAST YOU, TERRIEN, YOU INSOLENT CAD!!! OPEN THESE WRETCHED GATES OR I'LL UNLEASH THIS ARMY OF SHADES UPON THEM AND WHEN THEY BREAK THROUGH, THEY'LL FIND YOU AND DRAG YOU TO ME BY YOUR ENTRAILS!! YOU WILL PRAY FOR DEATH BEFORE I GET MY HANDS ON YOU!!!"

Breathing hoarsely, Eckhart sat for a moment gathering himself while the man above stood in shocked silence. After a few minutes, seemingly recognizing the tone he was being threatened in, Terrien shouted, "General! Issat you?" Releasing a frustrated sigh, Eckhart rolled his eyes and glanced at one of his high-ranking soldiers standing nearby. Unbelievable! What sort of ship was Mauve running if she let sarcastic little losers like Terrien guard the gates unsupervised? Terrien was at the lowest rung in Gammon's army and an annoying little twit that didn't even deserve the simple title of "soldier". Where was someone with actual authority and why weren't they here to greet the General with respect and dignity?

It took only a few minutes for Terrien to open the rudimentary gates, which were built to keep out garwolfs and other rural predators from this farming community. Marching through the gates, the human men went first, leaving most of the Shades outside the walls, already searching out sections of the ground where it met the wall in which to build their pitted nests. Inside, the village consisted of a small, curved alley with thatch-roofed buildings and huts spotted on either side of it, already corrupted foliage filling in the spaces in between. The ground was stained completely black and the golden hay and green mossed rooftops and walls of the buildings were turned sickly gray or oily black. The Shades had been hard at work here and it could have passed for a village from home if not for the sun's rays. Up above, the blackened clouds finally caught up with them, the line of sunlight disappearing as the darkness spread over the small town, filling in all of the cracks and small crevices with shadow and leaving everything else grayed and colorless. As soon as the sun vanished from sight, the dead town began to stir, Shades seeping from the ground as they emerged from their pits under the houses, slithering out of opened windows and chimneys like scavenging insects crawling from the orifices of decaying corpses.

Dismounting, General Eckhart passed Knoll's reins to one of his men, turning to address the higher-ranked soldiers. "Get your squads organized and situated, prepare the noon-time meals and await the strategy meeting at sunset. I'm going to have a talk with Mauve and find out what the hell is going on in this Light-blasted village."

Just then, out of the corner of his eye, the General spotted Terrien as he jumped down the ladder from the gate tower, the short, blonde and pale little man jogging over to him like a puppy who had no idea he'd done anything wrong. "General! I thought that was you, you tricky bastard! You really had me fooled there--! Ouchie!" The man's innocent little welcome speech cut off abruptly as Eckhart grabbed him with a gauntleted hand, giving his ear a rough and violent twist before shoving him away in irritation.

"Enough! I've had it up to here with your disrespect and idiotic teasing, you little worm! You should be quartered for even speaking to me the way that you did, let alone making me wait out there like a blasted fool!" After stumbling a few feet and rubbing his ear in silent agony, Terrien looked at him with some semblance of understanding the seriousness of the situation.

"No need to hurt me, General! Light's Goddess! I was just playing! I've been alone most of the time and the Mrs. won't let me eat suppers with her or anything! How else am I supposed to entertain myself?" Terrien flinched when Eckhart raised a hand to smack him, backing up a few steps fearfully.

Eckhart's deep, graveled voice grew quiet with anger as he restrained himself from slitting the man's throat where he stood. "Where the hell is Mauve and where in sun shine's radiance are the rest of my blasted men!?"

Terrien licked his lips nervously and glanced at the other soldiers who stood watching and waiting for his answer. "Define 'men'..." he finally said, warily.

***
Hobbling the horse in the small clearing, Rek got some water from a nearby stream and stood back to allow the beast to drink. Sifting through his saddlebags, he brought out some oats, starting to position the feeding bag over Eb's snout, petting at his neck trying to calm the horse down. A malignant look twinkled in the mount's eye but Rek ignored it and came closer, the copper's head coming up sharply with teeth bared and ears folded flat against his skull. Stumbling back, Rek tripped over thick tree roots and fell to the ground amidst moss and dead leaves. He sat there for a moment just staring at the snarl still evident in Eb's mouth and then smiled.

"I knew you didn't like me," he said, rising gingerly to his feet and brushing his jerkin free of dirt and leaves. Glancing around himself to make sure the girl wasn't nearby or possibly watching him, Rek reached into the feed bag and grabbed a handful of oats, showing the beast and holding his hand out within a few feet of the thing's nostrils. "Oooohhhh, yeeeaaah," Rek said in a slow, tempting whisper, waving the oats around, enough that Eb could smell them and even stretched his neck out a little to get a better whiff of the tasty treat. Then suddenly, Rek pushed the handful into his own mouth making grumbled hungry noises as he shoved the oats against his face letting most of them fall on either sides of his cheeks, but chomping and chewing most of them. "None foo' yoo'" he mumbled around his mouthful and Eb's head drew back with a small snort. Pausing in his taunting game, and taking note of the very clear disapproving look the horse was giving him, Rek spit out most of his mouthful, working the small bits and pieces from his gums as he lamely stepped forward and forced the feed bag over Eb's snout, petting the horse's neck in apology. Which of course got him nothing but a nip on his forearm for his efforts.

Giving up on that little drama, Rek went through the saddle bags again, bringing out the dried meat and bread he'd packed for their meals and setting them aside. As soon as the girl got the firewood gathered, they could settle down to their meals and eventually to sleep. Rek couldn't very well expect her to keep watch while he slept, for she was surely too young and needed her rest, so he'd just be snoozing lightly during most of this trip. It wasn't a problem, just another thing to add to the list of reasons why he wished he wasn't here. Why was the girl so damned important, anyway? Hesiod should have seen the potential in Rek as a seasoned warrior still in his prime and should have placed him accordingly where he would do the most damage against the Black Sand Army. Had he maybe heard about Rek's problem? The one where he sometimes lost it in battle. Even if one of the men Rek traveled with had told the Pyri Lord about it, surely he would have known it was an asset and not seen Rek as a possible liability. Men afflicted with baresark were not something to be feared but honored in the lands to the west. Maybe things were different here? Then Rek finally decided that he probably wouldn't have been given the task to protect this girl, whoever she was, if the Pyri Lord really thought he was capable of going off the deep end in the midst of combat. That made Rek feel a little bit better about his situation but still, he'd come across the ocean to fight and was still very eager to get to it.

Speaking of the girl... it had been several minutes since he sent her to gather wood. Looking around himself, Rek couldn't see any sign of her and he began to grow worried. Had she gotten lost? Maybe she'd fallen and gotten hurt? Typical of a child who seemed too soft to rough it in the wilderness, but even as he tried to be irritated about her possibly getting herself injured, his protective instincts took over instead. It was too quiet out here and he kept getting the feeling that something was wrong. Maybe Hesiod had given him this mission for a reason; maybe the girl really wasn't safe to travel alone. Unsheathing his axe from the holster on his back, he spun it tightly between his hands as he searched the trees around the clearing, the double blades flashing in the early evening light. Hearing what sounded like whispers to his left, he headed in that direction, creeping gingerly between the trees as quietly as his boots would allow.

Finding her and her new companion wasn't hard, but restraining himself from charging in and cleaving the bastard in two was. Standing several meters behind the man, Rek stood with his axe cradled in ready hands, watching in poised restraint as the other man's knife got closer to the girl's skin. Keeping his wits about him, Rek kept the battle lust at bay and calmed himself from the fear - fear for her safety, mostly - that threatened to creep up on him.

"You know, it's not fair that you would threaten her," Rek said with a shrug and mocking pout. "I mean, I'm over here... with my big axe... all alone. She can't even fight. It wouldn't be much of a contest, would it? Admit it, you're a man who longs for a challenge. You were just too shy to approach me." Rek winked charmingly and shared a look with the girl over the man's shoulder. "It's alright, I understand and I'll forgive you, if you step away from the girl and come and ask me to dance like a man."

***
"FINALLY! The storms have arrived!"

The shriek echoed out from the second floor window of the tallest building in the village - apparently what used to be the mayor's residence and the village's tavern - shrinking the spines of all those who heard it. Standing at the window, the skinny, blonde woman looked out over the wall of the village to the fields and prairies beyond, the distant Pyri border etched in blackened lines of stained earth that had been left by the charging Shades. Eckhart stood in the doorway to the large room, watching her silently and admiring her feminine assets, free for the moment to look at her without being accosted for viewing her as a woman. Mauve Endling was a tall woman yet shorter than the General himself, her slender curves hidden beneath shining copper plated armor and thick leather pants. Her white blonde hair reached down to the middle of her back, done up in a thousand tiny braids, their ends barely touching her round, firmly muscled buttocks.

"Oh, sweety-pie! My little crumb-cake of deliciousness! We have company!" Eckhart's body barely filled the door frame in this Gillian-made house, and thus, there was plenty of space for Terrien to poke his head into the room and utter his ridiculous nonsense. With a heavy handed punch to the top of the man's skull, the General sent the man stumbling back into the hallway with a pained yelp.

With a paranoid glint in her eye, as soon as Terrien's voice was heard, Mauve twisted round on her heel, a black bladed sword instantly in her hand, her gray eyes wide and searching for a throat to slit. Watching the General reprimand the short man, she gave him a grateful nod, the frown never leaving her face. "Terrien!" she shrieked, her voice causing the General to wince slightly as her grating, high-pitched voice dominated the large room. "I told you not to call me adorable pet names, you filthy silverpike! Come here so I can cut off your family jewels and feed them to you!"

"As entertaining as that would be, Mauve, I ask that I may divert your attention for a while?" General Eckhart interrupted, sensing a foolhardy drama brewing as he heard Terrien's snickers from the hall behind him.

Mauve relaxed from her battle ready stance and gave him a plainly bored and disapproving look before re-sheathing her weapon. "If you're worthy of it, General. You haven't been relevant for weeks and I have single-handledly been keeping things afloat in this wretched place. And I bet now you wish to step in and take over, like the burly Captain coming to save this vessel from capsizing. I'll have you know, I was doing just fine without you and your reinforcements and I don't need you to save me!"

Mauve was not an ugly woman by any stretch of the imagination, with the smooth, pale skin of an Islewoman, high cheekbones, square jawline, large, seductive eyes, thick and pouty lips, and a straight yet narrow nose. However, it was her disposition and violent personality that often made men avoid her company, even in the war room. Often times her plush lips were formed together in a scowl or split wide, baring her teeth in a bestial grimace, or her bedroom eyes with thick, feathered lashes were opened wide and wild with battlelust or rage. The woman was a beast cat, terrifying and insane, not because she felt she had something to prove to the men around her, trying to retain a flimsy control over the men in her charge, but because she was actually filled with a love for blood and took pleasure in the pain of others. Eckhart had half a mind to ask for her hand in life-mate vows... if he could only find where his balls had run off to and gather the nerve to move past his stomach binding anxiety whenever she started screaming about mutilating men's genitals like it was sport.

"Acerbic and delightful as always, Mauve," the General said, walking a few steps into the room and folding his hands behind his back. "And I wouldn't dream of taking this victory away from you. Just tell me where I am needed and I will position my men accordingly." She quietly snorted, giving him a neutral look, obviously allowing him this stalemate for once. "Where are the men I originally gave you? And why in Gammon's name was Terrien prancing about the gates like a buffoon?"

"We're the only sentient beings left!" she screamed in restrained aggression - not defensively; Mauve didn't do "defensive". "Where was I suppose to put the guppy? Surely not on the frontlines where he'd likely get senselessly coral-gutted!" Hm. Someone's daddy was obviously a sailor. "What use to me would he be then?"

"How can you be the only two left? What happened to the rest of my men? Did you push them to the breaking point, only stopping once you realized you had only one living soul to give orders to?! Light, woman! Have you never heard of economy or allocation or did the concept of reinforcements not occur to you?"

"You gave me 500 men to start, General, and then sent me 300 Shades to make up for the precious men you couldn't part with while playing in your sand castle!" the edge had reentered her voice, forcing Eckhart to shy away a little. "What did you think would happen in a month?!"

"I was on. My. Way. I had to answer Lord Gammon's summons. I made myself very clear before I left that you would only have to wait a short while before I brought the rest of the Islemen north. Do not pretend that I left you without any options! It was a month for Light's sake!" From the stubborn set of her chin, he could tell this wasn't going to get them anywhere and he sighed as he rubbed a hand over his face, massaging the bridge of his nose. She had a wonderful spirit and he loved the way she desired to kill everything in close proximity with a savagery that rivaled a murderous rampage. But her sense of strategy was severely lacking. What else could he expect from a woman? They simply weren't mentally made for war like men were. "Forget it. It's done. I am here now and I'm taking over. I'll salvage this Light-blasted mess."

"I handled it fine," she murmured, folding her arms across her chest and pouting in a pretty, surly way, the desire to continue the fight still burning in her eyes.

Looking at her, hating and adoring her at the same time; struggling with his desire to choke her for her insolence and then just struggling against his pure desire for her, it made him remember the reason for Gammon's summons and the personal conversation he'd had with the Demon Lord. Unceremoniously crushing the urge to kiss and then savagely bite into her perky lips, he said, "Where are the women and children you captured from this village? Have you been keeping them safe and alive? Have they been guarded?"

"Yes," she said with that same restrained aggression - defensive just wasn't the right word for her reactions. "Thankfully, the more your men died General, the more food it left for those of us who remained. And believe it or not, your Shades are surprisingly obedient and dedicated without any annoying manly urges or words to get in the way of following orders. They never wander from their posts and they don't respond to emotional outbursts."

Eckhart didn't care about her barbs or male-directed insults. "Take me to where you're keeping them."

Without another word, she led the way down the stairs to the first floor of the tavern, opening a locked door with a key she'd hidden in her breastplate - seriously? And she wanted to complain about lewd comments? - before leading him down more darkened steps to the basement. Below, in a dimly lit area, three large Shades, most likely Gillians from their height, stood guarding a door. Barking orders at the creatures, Mauve made her way through, unlocking the second door and swinging it inward, stepping aside and allowing him entry. Inside was a small room, lit with one oil lamp, stocks and food supplies piled on shelves against one wall, bottles of ale and wine against another. Huddled on the ground, hugging each other close, was a group of women, protective arms put around shivering and frightened children of varying ages. All of them were dirty, grown filthy from their days locked underground and the room smelled of sweat and urine.

"See?" Mauve said pressingly. "I kept them safe and fed them well. They're all ready for the slave caravans headed home to the Isles."

Ignoring her, General Eckhart stepped into the room and let his eyes travel over the grimy faces of the younger women and girls. Most of them were plain looking with regular features, brown hair and eyes, nothing special. A few of the adolescent girls looked awkward and distorted, their bodies growing longer and facial features larger than their heads or torsos could fit to handle, looking like a mish-mash of Gillian women parts and regular little girl bodies. He doubted that was what Lord Gammon wanted, but it was hard to tell. Eckhart didn't know how to judge beauty on the face of a child, not with those overly large eyes, dribbling noses or formless bodies. The more he inspected them the more sickened he became with the task, almost giving up if it weren't for the fact that Mauve was watching and she would surely judge him for having a weak stomach. Then his eyes set upon her, a girl in her 17th summer with long, wavy blonde hair that glittered like spun gold in the lantern light. Her facial features were youthful while still holding the presence of a woman in her chin and nose, her breasts and hips turning pleasantly shapely under her dress and bodice. And she was beautiful in her innocence, something that made him swallow a mouthful of bile even as he dampened the heat growing in his loins at sight of her.

She would do nicely as a bride for his Lord. "You," he said, pointing at her. "Get up. You're coming with me." But the young woman refused to follow orders, allowing her mother to gather her up in her arms. Pleading with him to let her daughter stay, both women blubbering in a pathetic display of fearful and loving emotion. Already dealing with the twisting in his stomach and wanting his special private "mission" from Lord Gammon to be completed and put behind him as quickly as possible, Eckhart made a motion to one of the Shades by the door. "Grab her and take her from the room," he ordered, stepping out of the shadow's way as it slithered into the room, it's black tentacles snapping out to snare the young woman's wrists, dragging her from the older woman's embrace. When the mother fought with the Shade and it looked like she might win - or that the Shade might be forced to tear the girl's arms off to pull her free - Eckhart stepped forward to thrust a knife under the woman's chin, her whole body freezing at the touch of cold steel. "Let go," his raspy voice was quiet and full of murderous death, his eyes devoid of any sympathy as he stared down at her. "Let her go or the rest of your children will be left without an elder sister and a mother."

Tears swelled in the strong, fierce gaze that met his, her arms loosening enough that the struggling girl was snatched free, pulled screaming and crying from the room by ungentle shadows. Removing his knife from the woman's throat, he left and slammed the door shut behind him, cutting off the wails of despair in the room behind him. The girl's long blonde hair danced like splashing liquid gold amidst the Shade's tentacled arms while she thrashed and kicked in it's hold, curses interspersed with her screams of frustration. Plunging his hand into the depths of her hair, he pulled her to her feet, her honeyed locks netting around his fingers and giving him a firm grip on her. Looking into her fierce and spirited eyes, he let his eyes travel down her arched neck, entertaining the thought of slitting her throat to spare her from the fate he planned for her. Then realizing once again it would surely mean that this ugly search would be forced to continue until he finally found someone worthy of his Lord's tastes, he resisted the urge and brought her up the stairs back to the world of sunlight, even though by doing so, he was ensuring that the rest of her days would forever be doomed to darkness.

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