Sephiris: The Price of Peace

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Re: Sephiris: The Price of Peace

Post by Guest on Wed Nov 09, 2011 11:20 pm

Mandor > Aram > The Green Twig, Lower District ~ morning of DAY 16

The common room was filled when Barthon and Simion stepped inside. A fire was roaring in the hearth, though Barthon thought it was entirely unneeded. He was already beginning to sweat underneath his armor. He glanced around at the tables that filled the common room, round wooden tables that had certainly seen better days. The patrons themselves looked the same. Most of the tables were filled, seating four or five patrons that seemed an equal mix of male and female. They all seemed to be talking, and the buzzing drone of their collective voices seemed to saturate the stifling air.

Most of the men and women were laborers or farmers. Many of them were probably in from their lands until the trouble out in the countryside could be settled. That was a part of the problem with the over-crowding of Aram: as many were here because they did not want to fight for their homes as those who had already lost their homes and had no where else to go. Barthon could not really blame them. He had been raised to wield his sword like a farmer was his hoe; they each had their own uses, and the middle of a battle was no place for a farmer. Those who were not despairing into a mug seemed intent on their gossip. Barthon had heard a few of the rumors on his way through the Gateway: that the shadows belonged to Zephiris, and had been sent out to punish humans for their sins, or that the shadows were in fact the demonic magics of the dragons. He had even heard rumors of both elves and dragons invading Sephalia, spoken by merchants as if it was fact! Were it a fact, Barthon would have been told by the Lord Knights, or the Duke himself. More rumors spoke of Duke Omoron preparing for war, and those rumors did bother Barthon. Duke Cyril Omoron was an ambitious and unpredictable man. How merchants and farmers had come across such information, should it truly be accurate, was beyond Barthon however.

A cursory glance across the tables of the common room was enough to show Barthon that his friends were not among the refugees.
“May I help you, Sir Knight?” came a voice from Barthon’s right. The innkeeper, a stout man wearing a stained apron and a few strands of graying hair, had approached him. He was standing slightly bowed, holding a wooden mug in one hand and a dirty towel folded over the other. “If you are looking for a room, I do fear you are better off with your own. And as far as the food goes…”

“I am looking for some friends,” Barthon said. “They spoke of a lady who owns the inn, and said that she keeps a room available for a man named Brenard san Deccour. He came in yesterday. Have you seen him?”

“Brenard…” the man said, rubbing his chin with the towel-covered hand. “Brenard… oh, yes! Strange company, that was. Unfortunately, I had no accommodations for them. The mistress never returned from Iyel’Del, a little over a week back now, and I did never hear of any… special reservations. They had a few drinks before going on their way.”

“Did they say where they were going?” Barthon asked. He couldn’t understand why they would not have sent word to the barracks if they had changed where they were staying.

“No… no, they did no say a word of it to me. I apologize, Sir… uh…”

“Camlin,” Barthon said. “Barthon Camlin.”

“Well, then, Sir Camlin, I will of course let them know you were looking for them should they come back. Unless, of course, you do no want them to know?”

“They are not fugitives,” Barthon said, a little too roughly. “Should they return here, tell them I am heading to Caluk tomorrow, and then Iyel’Del. They can follow if they wish, though I hold them to no obligation.”

“I meant no offense, Sir Camlin. And I will relate your message, of course, should they happen into The Green Twig again.”

“Thank you,” Barthon said, turning and striding toward the door. “Come on, Simion.” Barthon knew he had no right to act so angry with the man, but he couldn’t help it. He had no time to search for the others, as much as he wanted to. He had a mission, and beyond that they had to find Zephiris. Simion insisted that she could only be found in Sephalia, or beyond, but certainly not here. If they did not catch up to him and Simion by Iyel’Del, he would assume that he would likely never see them again.

“Why didn’t they send word to us?” Simion asked as they left The Green Twig. The street beyond was crowded, as it had been since Barthon had returned to Aram. It was also dirty, showing signs of the lack of care by the current inhabitants. Refuse filled the street corners and alleys, and the entire Gateway reeked of urine and worse. A crowd of refugees parted way for Barthon as he strode away from the inn, temporarily halting their normal plea’s for pity coins or scraps of food.

“I don’t know, Simion,” Barthon said. “I would assume either they could not, for whatever reason, or they have decided to halt their journey. We do not have the time to look for them though. We must make our preparations for Caluk.”

“What about Quentin,” Simion asked. “How will he know where to find us?”

“He knows where to ask,” Barthon said. “But I fear that he has more than enough work for him here.” Simion did not respond, but Barthon could see the disappointment in his face. Simion had grown attached to all of them, and Quentin had treated him like a father. Their departure would be hard, but necessary. As a Holy Knight of Zephiris, Simion could not afford to become too attached to anyone. Besides, Simion would soon be seeing his own father, and the rest of his family.

“How do you feel about returning home?” Barthon asked.

“A little scared,” Simion responded quietly. “I don’t know what I will find there. I don’t know if…” Simion took a deep breath to steady himself before continuing, “if they are still alive.”

“Try not to worry over it too much, Simion. You will know by tomorrow. For now, we need to focus on our mission. Since we cannot find our friends, there is something else we can do, something for your mission.” Simion looked up at him in surprise, one eyebrow arched and his lips drawn down in a slight frown. “We will speak to Duke Nuriam about relinquishing some mages to speed our journey across the sea to Sephalia. I have a feeling that time is of the essence, and we will waste quite a bit of it crossing the sea.”

“That sounds good,” said Simion. “But mages are not very common. Are you sure that Duke Nuriam will let you take any?”

“No, not me,” Barthon said. “You. Duke Nuriam spoke highly of you, Simion, and he believes in your mission. This request is to come from you, as a Holy Knight of Zephiris, rather than from me.” Simion smiled as the boy’s face paled. “But don’t worry. I will be there with you.”

They traveled back through the city of Aram to the Upper District. They passed by Order barracks, which was now an organized mess, like someone had kicked an anthill. Pages and squires were moving supplies and equipment to and fro, and the knights were either training, praying, or preparing their mounts. They passed the barracks to continue farther into the Upper District, toward Duke Nuriam’s castle itself. The castle was tall, built against the side of the mountain to add strength to its foundations. A single large tower soared over the castle itself, offering a birds-eye-view of the surrounding lands.

Barthon and Simion left their horses at the stable yard near the castle courtyard, known as the Sibylline Court, while Barthon went over what Simion was to say and do. Simion listened attentively, but Barthon could easily sense his fear. That would be understandable, even to the Duke, so Barthon did not try to hamper it. Across the courtyard, which was decorated with numerous fountains and statues, were the wide, shallow steps that led to the entrance of the castle. They ascended the steps until they reached a pair of liveried guards crossing pikes over one set of the wood, heavily engraved and gilded doors. Their livery bore the sigil of Duke Nuriam, a scroll wrapped around a wooden staff. It was a representation of the symbols of Aramis Sient, the prophet who had founded the city. They nodded at Barthon and raised their pikes, allowing them passage. One of the guards banged the butt of his pike against the door, and the servants within slowly pulled the massive doors open. Barthon could feel his own heart racing; he was nervous for Simion. It was a big task for a boy of ten years, and probably unheard of before now. Simion still wore the clothes of a page boy, and his sand-colored hair was still tousled. Barthon realized then that he was going to have to get an outfit for the boy, something that would make him look presentable and, with luck, be taken seriously. Perhaps he would speak to the Duke about that himself.

Their steps echoed through the stone corridor as they walked down the long halls. The tapestries, most of them bearing scenes of fall and winter to counter the current season, did little to muffle the sounds. The Duke’s audience chamber was straight down the hall, though they passed several side corridors and closed doors. Barthon had never been anywhere in the castle except the audience chamber, and he doubted he ever would. Today marked Simion’s first time within the castle, and Barthon enjoyed seeing the wonder on his face. He had already seen much for his age, but the Duke’s castle had always been a daunting symbol sitting on the crown of the city, something few people ever have the luxury of seeing. While it was always open to the public, it was certainly frowned upon to loiter or to waste the Duke’s time with petty complaints or requests.

The door to the audience chamber was open. The Duke was not at his chair, directly across from the door on the far side of the long chamber. A thick rug covered most of the stone floor. The trim was red, and an enormous and stylized version of Duke Nuriam’s sigil was woven into it. Banners hung from the walls, displaying the various guilds, orders, and Houses that comprised Aram. It was a colorful room, which helped dispell many visitor’s fears. A clerk was standing ready by the door, and when Barthon and Simion entered he bowed deeply.

“I will inform the Duke of your arrival, Sir Knight,” the clerk said. He bowed once again before departing through a side door.

“Do you remember what you are to say?” Barthon asked. Simion nodded, but he was staring at the chair across from them as if the Duke were already sitting there. “Stay calm, Simion. And don’t try to sound formal or pretty. Just tell him what you need”

“Okay.”

“And do not mention me. You do not want to look as if you are relying on me in any way. Try to talk as if this is your idea, and your quest alone. It will make people take you more seriously.”

“Okay.”

“And one last thing: try not to wet yourself.”

“Barthon!” Simion yelled. He immediately cringed as his shout echoed loudly in the chamber. A door behind the Duke’s chair opened immediately after, and Simion’s cheeks colored. Barthon did his best to subdue his smile. Duke Nuriam strode into the room, a pleased smile on his aged face. He had wavy black hair that was streaked with gray, and a thick beard. He wore a red and blue coat with lace trimming and his sigil on the left breast. A large jeweled ring adorned his finger, a mark of his office.

“Sir Camlin!” Duke Nuriam said as he walked passed his chair and across the chamber. Barthon and Simion both bowed deeply. “What brings you to my castle? Shouldn’t you be preparing for the new mission from your Order?”

“I am not here on any official capacity for my Order, nor for myself. I am simply escorting Sir Simion, the Holy Knight of the Order of Zephiris, so that he may make a request for his own mission.”

“Sir Altus?” The Duke said with his eyes raised. “The Holy Knight that I’ve heard so much about? It is an honor to meet you at last!” The Duke held his hand out for the boy to shake. Simion took it, albeit a bit shyly. “What is it you would ask of me, Sir Altus?” the Duke asked when they dropped hands.

Simion cleared his throat. “I would like to… I request in… as a Holy Knight of the Order of Zephiris, a unit of Magi from the Society of… um… Conscious Thought. In the name of Zephiris. My Lord,” Simion finished hurriedly.

The Duke smiled warmly at Simion. “And what need would you have for a unit of mages, young knight? I am sure you realize what a rare and expensive commodity they are.”

“For crossing to Sephalia, my Lord. A lot of time will be spent at sea, and that gives the dragons and elves more time than me to find Her. Mages can use their magic to speed up the ship. The sooner I get there, the sooner I can find Zephiris.” Barthon noticed that Simion spoke more confidently now. He had a feeling that Simion was in his element, whether he realized it or not.

“That sounds like a worthy goal, and a reasonable use of resources. The Society of Conscious Thought will be pleased to aid in the goal of the Holy Knights, indeed the goal of all mankind. From where are you sailing, Sir Simion?”

“Iyel’Del, my Lord,” Simion said. Barthon noticed Simion glance at him for a split second before returning his gaze to the Duke. Barthon wanted to sail from Dor, but Simion argued against it. The boy’s reasoning was two-fold: Iyel’Del was closer than Dor, and Simion had not yet seen the northern port-city. Being Simion’s mission, he told the boy that it was his call.

“I will give you one unit of mages from the Society here in Aram, and a writ for another unit upon reaching Iyel’Del. Use them well, Holy Knight, and ensure they reach safety in Sephalia. They will return here once you reach shore, however. Does that fulfill your need, Sir Altus?”

“It is more than I expected to receive. My Lord.” Barthon cringed inwardly at Simion’s hasty addition, but he was surprised as well. Relinquishing two units of mages was a grand gesture, and quite an honor for the boy.

“Now then, is there anything else I can do for the two most distinguished knights of Aram?” The Duke’s smile looked sincere, but Barthon could not help feeling guilty. He hadn’t earned such a distinction, nor had Simion. But it would be rude to argue the point.

“If I may, my Lord,” Barthon said, “I have a request as well. Sir Simion is young yet, and still inexperienced. He will find trouble on his journey with those who refuse to acknowledge his status and… capabilities. Perhaps some clothing that did not look like rags would lend him a little more credence?”

The Duke laughed heartily and clapped Simion on the shoulder. “The Church has just the thing for you, I think, young knight. They are relics of the Sixteen Years’ War, but they will do. I will have them sized for you, and both clothes and mages will be ready before you depart for Caluk tomorrow morning.”

“Thank you, my Lord,” Barthon and Simion said in unison, bowing.

Mandor > Aram > The Sibylline Court, Upper District ~ Noon of DAY 16

“That wasn’t as hard as I thought it was going to be,” Simion said as they retrieved their horses from the stable yard in the Sibylline Court. The Duke had left them promptly after they had concluded their business, no doubt to secure the things he had promised them. The walk out of the castle had been silent, and Barthon refrained from interrupting Simion’s thoughts. Now, though, he was relieved to know what the boy was thinking.

“Not everything will go so easily for you, Simion. Not that you didn’t do a good job, because you did. The Duke was predisposed to you. Most men of power that you come across will fear you more than respect you, simply because you want something from them. Or might be inclined to take it.”

“‘Predisposed’?” Simion said inquisitively. Sometimes Barthon forgot that the boy was really only ten years old. Despite how much he knew, he still had so much to learn.

“It means that he had foreknowledge of you, and he knew he had nothing to fear from you. You are working for the Duke, in a sense, and you do his name great honor.” Barthon smiled as he said this, but Simion slowly shook his head.

“I haven’t done anything to give anyone honor, Barthon. At least, not yet.”

“Modesty is the trademark of a great knight, Simion, as is piety. You have both in you, and that alone is honorable.” Barthon winked at Simion, and then urged his horse forward. “We should return to the barracks and prepare for our journey. There is much to do, and we must get an early start in the morning.”

As they passed the Court of Virtues, memories of a few short weeks ago raced through Barthon’s head. He had met with Lord Drake there, and he had given Barthon the mission that had brought him to his current path. It was truly honorable to have been the one chosen for the mission, and Barthon worried often whether his pride was too strong because of it. But to turn it down for that reason would make him no better than a monk. Duty was more important than fears of his self-worth. The Court was empty, as it usually was except during ceremonies, but it looked as serene as ever.

The barracks were a different story. The yard was even more hectic than when they had passed by the first time. Again, Barthon let Aramis force his own way through the crowd toward the stables. When Tadlin, the stablehand, saw Simion with Barthon, his glare returned. Tadlin would not understand the duties Simion had taken on; he only saw a spoiled page boy who was taking advantage of anyone he could as Simion handed him his reigns.

“Sir Altus,” Barthon said loudly. Perhaps that would get the point across. “You should report to Lord Drake and brief him on your mission, as well as your audience with Duke Nuriam.” Actually, Barthon saw, that got more than Tadlin’s attention. Most of the knights in the stable were staring wide-eyed as well.

After Barthon slipped down from Aramis and left the suddenly quiet stable yard, he made his way straight to the barracks. A dirt yard separated the stables from the northern side-entrance of the barracks, and the building itself looked more like an enormous inn than anything else. He supposed that, in a sense, that is what it was. The main entrance, facing west, was surrounded by a stone courtyard, the Orphic Court, which was itself lined with large bushes and a few verdant trees. None of it was overly fancy, just enough to provide some cool air and shade. The center of the Orphic Court was taken up by a large obelisk, the infamous Gedrich Monument.

The Gedrich Monument was nearly fifty paces high, making it taller than the barracks. Each side of the obelisk was heavily engraved with human script . The northern side was engraved with the history of the Order of Gedrich, the west with the importance of the Sixteen Years’ War, the south with scripture that pertained to the duties of the Order, and the east with an exact copy of the written document of Sakira’s Treaty. Barthon had prayed many times kneeling before the monument, though he passed it by without a second glance as he entered the barracks. It had been too long since he had bathed and cleaned his armor. His trek to Dor and then back had been taxing, and he had another long journey ahead of him. Perhaps far longer.

The halls inside the barracks were emptier than usual, a stark contrast from the outside. Barthon saw no brown-robed knights striding through the halls, though there were numerous servants, and a few page boys and squires hurriedly carrying out their tasks. “Glad to see you back, Sir Camlin,” said a few of the servants and pages as he made his way to the stairs leading to the second floor. “Welcome home, Sir Camlin.” The halls themselves were perfectly cleaned with the wooden-paneled floors scrubbed, the historical tapestries dusted, and the stands of ancient Gedrich Knight armor shining like a summer sky. None of the candles along the walls were lit because the windows spaced along the outer wall of the hall let in plenty of light. One candle however, marked to tell the passing of hours day or night, was lit in most rooms and in every hall in the barracks. The stairs leading up to the second floor of the barracks were on Barthon’s left-hand side halfway down the hall. The stairs went all the way up to a third floor, but Barthon’s quarters were on the second. The hall of the second floor looked much the same as the first except it was broken up by more doors. The outer wall was evenly spaced with windows, and Barthon glanced at the obelisk in the courtyard again as he passed it by.

Barthon’s room was near the end of this hall just before it turned inward. As he opened his door and stepped inside, he breathed a deep sigh of relief. Not that his room was as he had left it, but that he was finally back. He could take off his armor and relax. He could fall into the meditative activity of cleaning his armor, mentally preparing himself for the journey starting the following day, and of course taking a steaming hot bath. His father’s armor stood on its stand as it was when he had last seen it. It was physically empty, but it still carried so much in it. His father had meant a lot not only to Barthon, but to the entire Order. Like most, his father’s armor had been uniquely engraved, and Barthon feared that he would always feel to unworthy to wear it. With another sigh, Barthon began taking off his own armor.

The first piece to come off was his helmet. The blue plume was almost matted with dirt and pieces of dry leaves and grass. Dragon teeth were engraved along the visor that covered his face, as well as the lower part that covered his chin. Barthon set the helmet atop his own stand of armor.
Next, he removed his gauntlets. Heavily engraved with scripture, the gauntlets were perhaps the most heavily decorated and symbolic pieces of the armor with the exception of the breastplate. The miniature characters of scripture that twined around the fingers and hand were all chosen by Barthon. Their silver covering helped outline them, and of course increased their beauty. Inset in the knuckles were sharpened pieces of dragon bone. Largely used for hand-to-hand combat, the pieces of bone symbolize the defeat of G’sanarkath with the aid of his own daughter, Sakira.

Barthon then removed the belt that held his various pouches and two scabbards. Like much of his armor, they were heavily engraved with silver-covered characters. The scripture along the scabbards pertained to humanity’s willingness to uphold Righteousness, even at the cost of their own lives. It was something that had always rung true to Barthon, and, he assumed, every Righteous Knight of the Order of Gedrich. His two swords, the falchion and the arming sword, mimicked their scabbards in their solemn design. Both swords had seen much use during his journey the passed few weeks, and both would need to see the Order’s skilled blacksmith. One of the pouches, slightly stretched, carried Barthon’s journal. For some reason, he slid the journal under the pillow of his bed. Writing was not necessarily frowned upon, but Barthon wasn’t ready… wasn’t sure if he would ever be ready, for someone else to read the contents of his journal. That journal was a tangible record of the changes that Barthon had already gone through on his mission to find Zephiris. And he knew already that they would not be the only changes.

After the various arm pieces, Barthon finally removed the heavy cuirass, the thick breast and back plates that provided the most protection of his armor. The chest plate of the cuirass was carved with an important scene from the Zephirisian religion, perhaps the most important scene to the Order: the creation of the symbolic first human receiving the gift and burden of Righteousness from Zephiris, which the Order of Gedrich strives to uphold. This part of his armor was the most dented and dirty. After its visit to the blacksmith, Barthon would need to spend some time polishing it. His fights with Ragner Duiran and Z’ang, the strange dragon knight, had been costly to the symbolic engraving on the front. Many of its smooth lines were interrupted with dents or gashes.

Beneath his armor, hanging around his neck, was the Amulet of the Order, an acknowledgement of his achievements that he had received four years ago. Barthon was currently the youngest knight to have received it. The amulet bore the same symbol that was branded onto the skin of his right shoulder blade: a cracked dragon skull struck by three bolts of lightning, with the middle bolt, signifying Gedrich with the color of blue, more prominent than the other two, red and green, bolts. It was another symbolic reference to the defeat of G’sanarkath and the end of the Sixteen Years’ War. The amulet he left on.
After removing the rest of his armor, Barthon knelt before the completed stand in his woolen shirt and small shorts. He clasped his hands at his heart and uttered a ritual prayer to Zephiris. Wherever his journey was soon to take him, he was prepared. He had trained his entire life for this. But more important than himself, or his own mission, was the young Simion, the Holy Knight of the Order of Zephiris. As he clasped his hands at his heart and pictured the beauty of Zephiris in his mind, he knew this. It seemed engraved on his bones like the scripture of his armor. Simion must survive.`

Mandor > Aram > The Court of Virtues, Upper District ~ Evening of DAY 16

The open courtyard of the Court of Virtues was basked in the pink light of the setting sun. Filling the stone benches that outlined the circumference of the circular, man-made canal were the Righteous Knights of the Order of Gedrich. Within that circular canal, standing alone atop the central dias and surrounded by a ring of scripture-engraved columns, was the Order’s priest. On the morrow, the knights would be venturing out beyond the safety of the walls of Aram to bring stability and order to the chaotic countryside. It was a dangerous mission, but an important one. Every knight sat at rapt attention, eager to hear and assimilate every word from the holy priest standing before them.

The priest was dressed in a loose, open longcoat woven in blue, with four white bands radiating from the center of the coat at chest height, so that the white tunic visible beneath combined with the white bands of the coat to create a six-pointed star. His left hand held the hem of his coat near his heart as he waited to begin the ceremony. On that hand, a large silver ring on the first finger proclaimed his authenticity as an elder priest of Zephiris. The ring was set with a star sapphire, a round blue gem with six natural white rays that mirrored his priestly garb.

Without apparent signal, a monk entered from behind the dais, accompanied by two modest priestesses. In his hands a large, thin, ornate tome was carried up the steps toward the priest, who, accepting the book, bowed and dismissed the trio to stand behind him near the scriptural columns.

The priest held the lavish volume at chest-height, so that he could easily read from it and glance out at the gathering. His voice carried strongly across the courtyard, despite his age and seeming frailness. His voice, and the words he spoke, gave the knights courage and renewed their sense of purpose, strengthened their sense of duty.

"It is Written," he began, opening the book, "in the first book of Aramis: 'The duty of the righteous is by word and deed through pen or sword to uphold that which righteous is.'"

Barthon's heart swelled, and he ran a hand reverently over the engraving on his left gauntlet.

The priest turned a page and went on, "These words many of you know well, perhaps so well that they affect every aspect of your service, perhaps so well that you take them for granted. But I tell you now, never in all your generation--indeed, not since many centuries past--has there been such a need to live these precious words of our beloved prophet.
"When we hear this passage, most often we think of our service to our people, our duty to guard against evil and dissuade those of corrupted hearts. But today, we are called not to confront wickedness, but to shine the light beneath the shroud of shadow!" The elder's voice rang with conviction, paused to allow the knights to feel the stirring in their hearts. "For we read, near the end of this dissertation: 'Even as a burning lamp, whose flame is needed for its purpose to be shone, so also the righteous, though he is a flame to the wayward, should not neglect to be a light to the faithful. For this is the greater purpose of the upright, that there should be help in times of trouble, and light in times of darkness.'"
He closed the book and held it in his arm. "Noble knights of the Order of Gedrich, you set out across the land not against human foes, but against the powers of darkness, against the cloud of fear! You set out, even as Gedrich of old, against an enemy that would destroy your people!
"In this hour, all of Mandor is in need of our strength. We will go in pairs, as Gedrich did when he slew the dragon. We will be their strength! Yet it is not us, for in our flesh we are nothing. Knights! whence comes our strength!?"

"From Zephiris!" came the collective cry.

"And when the darkness grows thick, remember who you are! You have grown up in the traditions of Gedrich, whose cause was just! Victory is in your blood! You will have allies. You will face an enemy. And you, the righteous, will prevail!
"We are the hands of the mother! We are the arms that carry her children to safety! We are the light that shines their way!" Once more with a loud voice the priest called to them, "KNIGHTS! WHENCE COMES OUR LIGHT!?"

"FROM ZEPHIRIS!"

The priest raised his right arm, palm out. "For Mandor!"
All cheered.
"For Mandor!"
Again all cheered.
A third time, "For Mandor!"
And as the priest's arm fell, the exultant cacophony persisted into the darkening sky.

Mandor > outside of Aram ~ Early morning of DAY 17

I know the journey is going to be a long one, but I am prepared. And this time I have familiar company. The unfamiliar company, however, is what I find myself attracted to.
-Sir Barthon Camlin, Righteous Knight of the Order of Gedrich


Lord Walter Drake and Sir Barthon Camlin sat atop their horses at the head of the column of forty knights. Sir Simion Altus of the Holy Order of Zephiris, wearing a blue and silver uniform of the ancient Zephirisian Lords, rode on the opposite side of Barthon from Walter. The Duke had done more than refit an old uniform; he had ordered a new one made just for the young knight. It fit him well, and did its job of dispelling the image of a scraggly young page. The knights rode four abreast, with each row ten deep. They would hold this formation all of the way to Caluk. Between the knights and their leaders were the mages, Fabre Grau and Iaed Vesage, on loan from Duke Nuriam. Fabre and Iaed also rode horses, though obviously unsteadily. Behind the column of knights itself was a small army of page boys and squires and packhorses, many of which were further burdened with carts carrying even more supplies. Barthon could feel the sweat gathering on his brow beneath his newly polished helmet. As much as he had wanted a position of leadership, it was a new experience for him. He wasn’t quite sure how he would perform.

Lord Drake spoke, relieving Barthon of the burden. For now, anyway. “As all of you know, we are riding out to the farming town of Caluk. It is of utmost importance that we provide the town with security and safety, The shadows do not pillage or burn, they simply kill. As long as the farmers there survive the night, they can continue with their work during the day. And their work must continue. That is the only way that Aram will survive this dark time. When we arrive in Caluk, we will begin setting up the palisade and other defenses. We will train every able townsman how to fight and defend. Once Caluk is secure, we will move on.” Walter looked at Barthon and gave a small nod before continuing. “Sir Camlin will be leading this mission, and both I and Sir Altus, of the Holy Order of Zephiris, will be advising him.”

“We should reach Caluk by noon,” Barthon said. His voice felt strained, and his palms were beginning to sweat beneath his gauntlets. He was never this nervous in the middle of battle. “That should give us plenty of time to get the majority of the defenses in place. However, even the best plans can go awry in the face of the unknown, and that is exactly what we are going into. We will leave off the major planning until after we’ve seen the state of the town. Let’s move out.” Barthon pulled the reigns of his destrier, Aramis, to turn it around. The Blue Mountains and Aram, his home, filled the view to his left. Ahead of him, northeastward, lay sparse forests. Those forests would thin as they neared Caluk and would be replaced by farmlands. With a small nudge, Aramis started forward.

After several long moments of relative silence, Barthon turned and waved Fabre and Iaed forward. Fabre kicked at his horse and flailed with the reigns until the horse sped up more out of irritation than any direct command. Iaed’s simply followed. Barthon grabbed the reigns as Fabre reached him, before he sped passed completely. Walter pulled Iaed‘s hoses level with his own. “Tell me about yourselves,” Barthon said after both man and horse were calm.

“Uhhh….um…like, what exactly?” The mage looked at Barthon oddly, as if the knight were an insect worth a momentary inspection and nothing more. His dark hair was cut short and his face well-trimmed. He wore a leather vest over standard traveling clothes, and a sturdy pair of leather boots. His saddle bags were filled to the brim with supplies. At least the man had come prepared, Barthon thought to himself.

“Why don’t you start with what you do,” Barthon said. “I know very little about mages, or about the Society of Conscious Thought.”

“Really?” said Fabre. “I thought you knights were educated in more than the ways of war.”

Reining in his irritation, Barthon replied evenly, “There is little of importance in the Society to our Order. We focus on military aspects, truly, for we are a military order. But we are also a religious order, and every one of us knows, to varying degree, the scriptures and histories. Magic has never been an important part of what we do, nor has the Society.”

“Hmmm…” said Fabre. He watched the road ahead of them silently for a few long moments. Then he said, “as a mage, I do more studying than anything. I can do a little bit of everything, but nothing with any great skill. I hear the mages in Iyel’Del are much more skilled, but the Society there is larger as well. And their history… I would love to spend some time in their libraries.”

“How did you learn to do magic,” Simion asked.

Fabre looked over at Simion and drew down his brows. Simion was obviously less than an insect to him. “I was fascinated with dragons as a small boy. I taught myself draconic, learned everything of their histories, played out the Sixteen Years’ War in my small bedroom. I did not know about the Society then, but somehow they found out about me. Magic or no magic, a working knowledge of draconic is valuable.”

“How long have you two been a pair?” Barthon asked.

Iaed looked at him angrily. “We are not a pair, Sir Camlin. I hardly even know him.”

“Danolt died in one of the first shadow attacks,” Fabre said. Again he was peering deep ahead, as if looking at something beyond what was before him. Probably looking back, more likely, Barthon thought. “They sent some of us out to see if we could do anything. Nothing really seemed to work.”

“What about you, Iaed?” Barthon asked in the intervening silence. Iaed was about Barthon’s height, though she looked younger. Her dark brown hair was done in up in a type of bun with her bangs hanging loose over the side of her face. Her eyes were a very pleasing shade of amber. In fact, he realized, everything about her oval-shaped face was pleasing, even the small mole over the left side of her lips. She wore a red and black embroidered corset over a black riding dress. With the exception of the corset’s straps, most of her arms and shoulders were bare, except for a pair of black satin arm covers that extended from her elbow to her wrist and ended in a lacy design that covered the backs of her hands. Her fingernails were even painted red. He felt the sweat returning to his brow and palms.

“When you are done studying my bosom, perhaps I will tell you…” Barthon cleared his throat and turned his head away. The sweat she wouldn’t be able to see, but he did not want anyone to see the bright shade of red his face was turning. “I have been in the Society of Conscious Thought for three years. I have not been paired with anyone yet, though I have participated in numerous group spells. They really only sent me because Fabre lost his pairing.”

“How do they choose pairings?” Walter asked. “I mean, you make it sound like you have little choice in the matter.”

“We don’t’ have any choice,” said Fabre. “What Iaed said is true for all of us, in the beginning. We do more activity in groups. The Masters watch us closely, finding a pair that really resonate with each other. It is a lot like forming a choir, one of the Masters explained to us once. You want some to sing high, and some to sing low, and those who can do both at the perfect pitch form a great pair. Some of the Masters think that it goes beyond that, but that is only theories and speculation.”

“What, exactly, are your orders?” Barthon asked. “Are you to help us freely, or are you only required to help our passage across the sea to Telmural.”

“We follow whatever orders you give,” Iaed said.

“The only requirement is that we return to Aram once you reach Telmural,” Fabre added. “As I am sure it was explained to you, human mage pairs are an expensive commodity, and not easily replaced. Danolt and the others we lost that night were more than we can afford to lose in these times.”

“I suppose that means you will have to take extra good care of me, Sir Camlin,” Iaed said with a sultry smile. Barthon felt his face heating again, but he refused to look away again. He knew she was just teasing him now because of his first reaction.

“I will protect everyone under my charge, Lady Iaed.” Fabre snickered and let his horse fall behind, and Iaed did a few moments later. Walter closed the gap with his horse and nudged Barthon in his armored ribs.

“What?” Barthon asked. Walter was grinning.

“You’ve got until Telmural with that woman. That is quite a journey. Are you sure you can handle her?” Walter laughed at Barthon’s glare.

“I don’t understand,” Simion said. “What’s so funny?”

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Re: Sephiris: The Price of Peace

Post by Blackrock on Sat Nov 12, 2011 6:09 pm

Sephalia > Ashwood ~ Night of DAY 26

Barin looked about the tavern. All the Hawks were here, Honourguard and all. The otherwise half-empty tavern now seemed pretty full, even though it could probably hold twice as many men as it now did. The atmosphere remained mostly unchanged; there were still the loud and rowdy people one would expect to find in such an establishment....but there was a difference. A subtle, just under the surface, tension could be felt in the air. Despite their cheerful and, seemingly, carefree faces the mercenaries knew that they were here for a reason. The Mustering was to be held soon, they all knew it; they all felt it; it was only a manner of time until the Captain declared it officially.

Apart from the Hawks, the innkeeper and his family had been allowed to watch – they were the hosts, after all, they had the right to be present. Any other local visitors were dissuaded from entering by two burly men from the Honourguard, proudly bearing their signature crimson cloaks, stationed at the door. Barin himself had taken position by the bar, which was (not surprisingly), at the center of the tavern. The tables and chairs had been positioned in a semi-circle around him; most had taken seats wherever they willed, often pairing themselves into small groups. Only the officers had to abide by some formality.

The Captain was in the center of the whole deal, while to his right the Seneschal had taken a seat. The Corporals and Sergeant Ratibor had sat in the front row, so they could quickly make their way to the Captain if needed. To the left, slightly to the side – the Mages had been given places; they were not yet part of the Company and as such had no place amongst the others. Those of the Honourguard that were not at the door were standing near Barin; they were not seated, as their duty was to be alert at all times.

Judging that the time was right, Barin got to his feet and raised his hands. Immediately the mercenaries quieted down. The Mustering had now begun.

“I will get straight to the point”, the Captain began as he paced about the small stretch of empty space around him “we have been offered a contract, a rather profitable one I should think. Unlike others we have undertaken, however, this one is...grander in scope. It is not my decision to make, this is important enough to warrant your votes as well.”

Barin examined the faces of the men and women around him – anxious, eager to hear more of this profitable venture. He continued:

“You have seen that we have...guests, they are Mages; our potential employer’s trusted men.”, a pause followed “You know how much I like speaking uninformed, so I will leave our visitors to present us with their offer.”, the Captain added with a smile, inclining his head at the Twins.

He resumed his seat and eagerly waited to see how D’Armitage’s men would play their roles.

As was their custom, the Twins stood to indicate a united front, but it was Tuuli that spoke to those gathered. They wore their weapons as did those gathered in a half-circle around them. Tuuli dipped her chin slightly toward Barin to thank him for allowing her the opportunity to speak and then faced the Company once again. “As your good Captain has said, our patron, Baron D’Armitage has sent us to join with you specifically. He is known to your Captain. We know him to be a man of his word and we put our lives in his good hands.”

Having introduced their patron, Tulli stepped forward a few paces to fully gain the attention of the gathered throng. She was a skilled speaker, catching the eye of each to make it seem she spoke to them alone. “My brother is Tuula, I am Tuuli Brendersen. We are Elementalists of the very Air around us, but are no strangers to the hard life of battle. We come from a long line of fisher folk and sailors. But our gifts with magic allowed us to hunt pirates for our patron.” Again, Tuuli paused, offering a smile, she swept her hand toward Fabrin, “Your good Scout can attest that we need no coddling.”

Their bona fides out of the way, Tuuli thought how best to explain the mad plan they were sent on. Tucking some errant wisps of strawberry-blonde hair behind her ear, she lifted her gray eyes, deciding to simply lay out the truth of it. “In the lands, there have been disturbances as you well know. The shadows themselves rise to attack at night. None of the races are spared this nightly siege. Our patron believes it foreshadows the return of Zephiris to the lands. We are to find her and in the name of Baron D’Armitage protect her and do her bidding.” Tuuli paused to allow such a bold claim to sink in. “Our patron wishes nothing more than to ensure no other person bring harm or influence over Zephiris and is willing to pay a goodly sum to ensure she is safe.”

The stunned silence extended as Tuuli paused once more, not willing to push the point too strenuously. “If you choose to join with us, all our abilities, magical and mundane are yours.” She finished with quiet certainty.

Barin watched carefully as the mages took their seats and then glanced over at the faces of his men. As was the case with him when he had first heard details about their “quest”, the expressions were a mixture of disbelief, anger and even outright laughter. It was obvious the mercenaries were not quite certain if they should even believe this tale; be angry at the mages for wasting their time or simply dismissing it all with a shrug and a wide grin. The Captain was almost ready to do the same…but, even if a fool’s quest – if it paid well, what was the problem?

He was certain that the Baron had his less than noble reasons for wanting to find the Goddess first. Like any man born to wealth and power, he was a player. Sephalia was his board and people his pieces. As he had pointed out to the Twins earlier, Barin was more than willing to be a simple pawn provided the pay was good. And it was good.

What more could a mercenary want, then?

The Captain rose to his feet and the murmuring slowly died down, but not as quickly as it had before. He basked in the silence for a few short moments, eyeing the men one by one – taking care to meet their eyes when he looked upon them. A fighter must always know that his commander is watching, a leader’s presence had to be as real as the taste of blood on their tongues and the stench of sweat in their nostrils.

“You have heard what our assignment is to be” he told them “The Goddess has returned to the lands, our patron claims….how many of you here are one with the Faith?”
Most of the men raised their hands, some kept them down, others were uncertain. Someone spoke up:

“Beg pardons Capt’n, I pray to the Goddess, praised be Her name, but prayer alone don’t keep your stomach full at night. Faith don’t keep your small ones warm and clothed.”
That was Sten Longnose, as he was known amongst the Hawks. An old mercenary, from some distant backwater that had earned his name after losing a part of his nose in battle. After everything was over and Sten was a bit worse for wear, one of the other Companions had given him his new name. As with all nicknames to appear on such occasions, it had stuck.

“What part of a “goodly sum” did you not understand, Longnose?” Barin threw back

“I’d say Zephiris being a Goddess and all, we should be getting’ a godly sum instead!” someone said from one of the corners.

The statement was followed by loud laughter from the Hawks, demonstrating that their previous statement about holding true to the Faith was little more than words. No godly man would laugh at such matters, Barin knew. But he also smiled slightly – mercenaries should have their priorities straight.

“I assure you,” he continued after the laughter had died down “that the Baron is not a tight-fisted man and his rewards are generous. “another pause from him followed, after which he said “In short, as strange as it sounds – I say we take this assignment. When have we ever turned down a well-paying job due to what it entails?”

“I agree with th’ Capt’n” Ratibor’s deep voice boomed.

“Aye, me too!” one of the Companions said.

Men began raising their hands, to signal their approval. Barin looked over at Randor, who nodded as well. He may not look like it, being a pampered merchant’s boy and all, but the Seneschal was one cunning devil. The Captain knew better than to disregard his counsel.

“It is settled then.” he said, his voice carrying throughout the room. Would this be a historical sentence?” a part of him couldn’t help but wonder. “If any man or woman here wishes to voice their disapproval let them speak now.”

None spoke. They all agreed.

It was easier than Barin had at first anticipated. While he had decided to take on the task beforehand, convincing his men to do so had not always proved easy in the past. And yet, in this case – whether it was piety or the ability to spot a profitable venture – the Hawks were swayed easily enough. He was afraid that the task might seem too…abstract for them, but realistically, Goddess or no, it meant that they would have to travel somewhere, look around for something and return for their reward. Maybe they all saw it the same way.

“Good.” He took a sip from his mug of ale placed on the nearby bar and turned to the men again “Now comes the matter with the Mages – do we accept them as one of us or no?”

He glanced at the Twins and signalled for them to stand up; alone they looked imposing enough, together they were quite the sight. Nobody in the tavern, be it in the middle or one of the far-off corners, could miss them. Still pondering, Barin then gestured at one of the mercenaries seated in the front row.

“Tiron, what do you make of them?” He remembered that he had asked him about Geren and Silan last time, so he might as well listen to his judgement this time around.

“Lookin’ good, Captain.” He nodded a few times “Worn ‘n’ weathered faces, rough hands ‘n’ muscled aye – these are not the bookish bastards that rarely see the light o’ day.” After a momentary pause he saw fit to add “Plus Fabrin spoke good o’ them.”

Barin nodded silently, looking over at Fabrin. The scout was quick to understand his word was needed.

“Tiron says it true, Captain. The Mages pulled their own weight during our journey. They are no strangers to our way of life.” he said from his seat.

Barin nodded once more, then looked at the Twins.

“Apart from your magical abilities, what other skills do you possess and can offer to this Company?”

When the Captain addressed the pair directly regarding other skills, it was Tuula that spoke this time. He flashed a smile that flashed against his tanned face. Drawing his bearded ax from its holster, he hefted it easily. "My sister and I are sailors. Descendants of fisher-folk as far back as any can recall. At sea, raiders or bandits cannot always be hidden from or run from. You have nowhere to go. You fight or you die.

Our Patron tired of losing ships and goods to Raiders and set out to hunt them down. We are a part of his best crew set to such a task. Magic has its uses, but takes time and effort and we may not have the luxury of either. My sister's skills with bow and blade are equal to any man." His voice shone with pride. "And I would wager I might be the match of any with my axes. We do not shrink from bloodshed should the need arise in defence of our crew or in pursuit of our duty."

Barin smiled, inclining his head slowly. “Axes? I prefer the versatility of a sword myself” he told him, as a man might remark about a particular food he liked or disliked “but if someone wishes to serve me with their skills, I do not care what weapon they chose.”

Truth be told, the Captain was starting to like the mages. They were quick and to the point, did not stand out as most of their kind would and, most importantly perhaps, their martial skills would make it easier for the rest of the Hawks to accept them. Simple folk would not be willing to place their trust on someone who fought with the power of their voice. Clearly, he had received the best kind of mages for the task at hand.

“Now then, if any of you gathered here wish to speak against accepting the Mages into our employ, I will hear you out.”

Turning to his men, the Captain awaited to see if any would voice their concerns. He was certain that more than half of them were against his idea, but could not find a good enough argument to oppose him. They would grow accustomed to them, in time...this was the way with such things, for now – they would have to place their trust in their commander; who in turn hoped that the Twins would have a chance to prove themselves sooner rather than later.

Of course, there were the few who would speak against this and Will the Peasant was the first to do so. He was an old man, probably only a few years younger than Rin had been, and had joined the Hawks when they were first founded, back in Brookstone so many years ago.

“Beg pardons m’lord Barin” he still addressed him as lord, seeing as he had known Barin when he was still a noble. Despite his many attempts, the Captain had never been able to teach Will to call him something different. “But no proper man should be havin’ dealin’s with ‘em mage types. What they do ain’t natural, it ain’t. Us common folk don’t need t’ be involved in such.”

Although he kept his expression natural and passive, Barin smiled in his mind. Ignorance came hand in hand with fear, if something couldn’t be explained with whatever rustic method the peasants had, it was either godlike or outright evil. The Hawks should be thankful they have a leader who can see farther than his nose he told himself.

“You used to say the same thing about having a bath, Will. Until I showed you that using soap needn’t be a lord’s privilege.”

A roar of laughter followed and Will, in a way befitting a true lowborn peasant, scratched his head, mumbled something shyly and sat down. But Barin was quick to silence the rest of the Hawks and continued.

“I see your concern, but if you - we for that matter - are frightened of the unknown, what in the Goddess’ name are we doing outside our home villages?” his gaze passed through their ranks “None sing of those too timid to embrace what they do not know.”

A wave of mumbling agreeing with him carried through the inn, but the Captain had no time to waste. “Any other objections?”

“Aye” this time it came from Herold, a former soldier in one of the armies of Sephalia, who had turned to mercenary work after he realised that his wages couldn’t sustain his growing family. “They say they got skill with bow and sword and axe - that’s good. But we both know that fighting at sea ain’t the same as fighting on land, Captain. Battle is different, sailors don’t form tight ranks and fighting is man to man, blade to blade. Neither do they carry armour on them ships. Opening a man’s skull with an axe or sticking an arrow in his gut’s different when you face a knight clad in steel from head to toe. ”

“That is so, Herold” Barin nodded “but tell me, how many of the men and women in this room knew how to slip past an enemy’s armour when they first joined us?”

There was a momentary silence and the Captain seized the opportunity. “Fighting men are not born, you know that better than most I would say, they are made. Forged and fashioned, like a good smith honing a blade. What they do not know, we’ll teach them – and I’ll wager they have a deal they could teach us.”

“Aye, Captain. Beg pardons, you’re right.” Herold bowed his head slightly and sat down when Barin gave him a nod of his own.

“Still, let it not be said that the Captain is forcing down his opinion on his own men. I am certain the mages can speak for themselves.” He turned at the duo “How familiar are you with fighting on land and in a tight formation?”

Once again it was Tuula that spoke for the pair. "Only twice were we called to fight on land in the ranks of an Army, it is true what your man says. But aboard ship, there is nowhere to maneuver and the man to your left or right was all that stood between you and death. You looked out for that man or woman. And they, in turned looked out for you."

Tuula looked over the group gathered before them. "If you take on this duty for our Lord. Then we are bound to you as we are to him."

Barin nodded in acknowledgment and turned to his men again, his face firm – as if having reached a decision. And true to his expression, he uttered the following words:

“I have decided.” He said “The mages Tuula and Tuuli Brendersen will be a part of this Company. Furthermore, recognising their experience and commendation from a man I...” the slightest of pauses followed, he was certain that only the most perceptive would notice; the Captain meant to say “trust”, but that would be a lie. “know, I will accept the Mages not as simple Recruits, but as full-fledged Companions right away.”

He stopped to see what the reaction of his men would be. There was a loud muttering, from all corners of the inn – some approving, some not so much. It wasn’t the first time he skipped the mandatory trial period one underwent as a Recruit, but the occurrence was still a very rare one. And that was with men and women he had known beforehand, not a two strangers who just appeared out of nowhere. Still, his mind was set, so he raised his voice and asked:

“Does anyone object? I do not read minds, so if anyone feels that this decision is wrong or a mistake, let them step forward.”

Silence followed, the mutters were stifled. And again Barin was certain that many of them secretly disapproved, but could find no real argument. An argument to convince themselves why it was wrong, let alone their Captain or the rest of the Company. Men were strange like that, the Captain had learned over the years, they held some inbred fear of the unknown; surrounded themselves in their cages of made-up taboos and for what reason? He sighed quietly, so as to not be heard by anyone nearby. He was a soldier, not a philosopher – let them figure it out.

“Very well” he said shortly after “I see that none of my Companions object. The Hawks have decided.”

Barin then turned his head at the Twins again, motioning them to step forward.

“We have a...tradition in this Company” the Captain began “while, as I already told you, we ask for no oaths or sign any contracts, we still believe that the fighting men share a kinship together. One forged in blood and steel - those ties bind forever. And while we have yet to experience this with you, Fabrin and his scouts have agreed that you will not flinch when the time comes.”

He paused for a moment, letting the words sink into the minds of those gathered. “For this reason, I will now present you with our sign.” He nodded at the Seneschal “Randor, if you please.”

The young man got to his feet and neared the Captain, taking out a small bundle from the insides of his clothes. A black cloth wrapped around two medallions made of silver, polished to a shine. They were wrought in the shape of a hawk and were suspended from a rough, iron chain. Barin took the bundle in one hand, while with the other he took the first necklace and beckoned for one of the Mages to step forward.

Tuuli stepped forward, followed closely by Tuula. The Twins were silent for this was a solemn moment. Both were gratified that Fabrin had spoken for them. They'd grown to respect the scout as he'd led them back to join with the company. Once before Barin, Tuuli bent her head to allow him to place it about her neck.

Deftly, the Captain placed the chain with the hawk around her neck. He did the same for Tuula who came afterwards, marking him as one of the Hawks as well. When the short ceremony was done, someone raised a toast for the new members and the entire inn burst out into cheers. Some were half-hearted; some were only a few moments long, as if such an activity was necessary but misliked; but there were others – and those were earnest. Already the Company was growing used to the Mages, Barin thought with a smile.

The Twins turned from Barin to face the group gathered there. Tuuli smiled, Tuula with his characteristic scowl. Only Tuuli could tell he was happy about the way things were working out. Once the applause and cheers, hearty or not, ended, Tuuli spoke once more. "We thank you and swear to you that we will be at your side throughout anything we may encounter together."

Barin smiled and said “As I already told you, we do not judge others by their words – solemn or not – but by their actions. Soon enough, we shall see.”

He nodded at the silence that followed content with the fact that they had nothing so say to him. The Captain suspected that they too knew that a man was best judged when his words had to be put to practice. With that thought out of the way, he gestured at the rows of chairs and tables, in which the mercenaries had taken their seats.

“As members of the Company, you will now sit amongst your future brothers and sisters in arms. Acquaint yourself with your companions and with your superiors as well. Randor, the Seneschal, will make a catalogue of your inventory on the morrow and will allow you to browse through our own stock.”

The Twins nodded to Barin's instructions and sat at a bench where room had been made for them. Tuula shook hands with those offered while Tuuli smiled gently. Both glanced at Randor to identify him so they might find him the next day to work with him on what supplies they would need as they had little to offer.

“Now, speaking of superiors...I think we have quite the matter to discuss ahead of us” Barin proclaimed in the mean time, walking over to grab his mug of ale and take a sip.
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Re: Sephiris: The Price of Peace

Post by Kalon Ordona II on Fri Jan 13, 2012 5:07 am

Sephalia > Telmural > High Temple of Zephiris ~ morning of DAY 21

Áirhath and Kate had gone alone to the high temple, reasoning that it would be easier to get into more places with the smallest number possible. Here, in the tall, muted hallway, Áirhath was glad of their decision. He felt like an intruder, so closely surrounded by oak walls with hangings of thick blue cloth. Their footfalls were silent on the dark blue carpet, and the ceiling, though high above, caught and cushioned any sound rather than reflected it. The elf realized that he ought to be able to hear himself breathing. Maybe it was the sudden change from the openness of the temple, but the hallway seemed void of even that. Only Kate's calls could be heard, sounding to Áirhath as if she was speaking directly into his ear. Áirhath didn't like it.

“Hello?” Kate called again. “Is anyone here?”
Áirhath glanced at the oak doors they passed. “Should I--the we--have entered this place?”

A door to their left opened, and the priest coming through gave a start. “See here,” he said sternly, “just what do you think--”
At the same moment, someone appeared from what Áirhath had first thought was a dead end to the hallway. Evidently the hallway turned sharply to the left. The new figure appeared to be another priest. On seeing Áirhath and Kate, his brows came down in stern puzzlement, and he paused to close one of the side doors as he came toward them.
“I found them here just now,” said the first priest.
The second priest stopped in front of them in the center of the carpet and folded his arms. “Where did you get the idea you could just walk in?” It was obvious that, on top of their intrusion, Áirhath and Kate's unusual appearance was arousing even greater suspicion.

Katerina brushed over his question. “We wish to speak with the High Priest.”
“You and every other peddler worried about their market.”
The first priest took notice of his tone. “Isn't that a little strong?”
“She didn't answer my question, and we don't have time for this,” said the other, still looking at Kate.
“It's about the shadow beasts,” Kate persisted, and when the priest plainly had ready on his tongue a number of strong responses to that, she corrected herself, “not questions, answers. News.”
The priest glanced at the elf, whose exotic presence seemed to lend plausibility to the merchant's unusual claim.
“Besides, I did knock,” Kate added curtly, playing the unjustly accosted victim.

The priest seemed to settle somewhat. “Patience and propriety. Two things all merchants should learn.”
The first priest explained the situation. “Only priests are allowed in the chapel dome--that's where the High Priest is now. You'll have to wait in the temple till the morning benediction to try to speak with him.”

Áirhath pieced together what he thought was going on, linking the 'chapel dome' to the tall, domed tower--bigger than a tower, really--which had been visible outside as the tallest of several structures adjoining the main building. He had his bearings, now, realizing the high corridor must go to more places than just between the chapel and the main temple. The chapel had to be the most important, since only priests were allowed, but he didn't know enough of the humans' religion to understand why. Trying to subtly influence Katerina, then, the elf took a casual half-step back toward the corridor entrance.

Evidently it did quite the opposite, for Katerina started in on them again, her tone that of one well used to reasoning with stubborn folk. “Look here, we've come all this way from Oliphey, through hordes of these beasts, just to bring you this news.” She waved back at Áirhath. “My friend here has come all the way from elvenlands as an emissary from...”
“Eldin,” Áirhath supplied, “dan Irrarsil Dhallath, the White Council.”
Katerina had almost certainly been about to say more, but she instead shrewdly allowed the dropped name to have its effect.

The two priests looked at each other with differing degrees of incredulous doubt. They conversed almost soundlessly.
“He doesn't look like an emissary. He looks like a finely-dressed savage,” the harder one said. In this room his low voice was quieter than a whisper, and even Áirhath had to strain to hear what was spoken.
“All the more reason to...” he trailed off, glancing at Áirhath, probably suspecting the elf might be able to hear.
The other seemed to have gotten the message anyhow.

“You were right to come here,” said the first priest. The second nodded. “I can't let you into the chapel, but if you follow me, the High Priest will be able to see you shortly.” The one turned halfway to go, one arm held out to them, while the other took his leave and made his way back along the corridor.

Áirhath and Katerina followed the remaining priest. Only after both priests' backs were turned did they dare exchange sidelong glances, half of wonderment, half of worry, eyebrows raised and jaws set. Although Kate could not help adding a grin and wink at the end. Áirhath had reason to be less confident, but at this point they were committed to this path. There was nothing he could do about it now.

* * * * *
The priest made his way along the corridor, not exactly hurrying, but certainly not taking his time. He did close any doors that were ajar as he passed them. One of the branches of the corridor ended in a low double door, one of which he opened slightly and sidestepped inside. As he softly closed the door behind him, one of the four priests with their backs to the door turned around and softly asked, “What took you so long? Why isn't brother Jaret with you?”
“Something has come up,” the taller priest replied, looking past him into the room. The chapel consisted of a shadowy colonnade encircling a single bright room, its domed ceiling more than four stories above. Silhouetted just beyond one of the arches of the colonnade was the High Priest himself, his arms outstretched and his head tilted slightly upward as he sang, eyes closed, with the rest of the gathered priests. The non-centric position he had always taken as High Priest sent a deep-seated message of humility that engendered profound respect. The priest walked to the edge of the colonnade, the overwhelming sound of song lifting his spirit but affecting his steps to reverence. He waited just behind and to the right of the High Priest. Unwilling to interrupt the song, let alone the High Priest himself, the priest folded his forearms together, bowed his head and let his thoughts flow with the music. Before long he found himself joining in.

...fear,
I e'er will sing of her love...
When e-ver in the depths of dispair,
I e'er will sing of her love...

When cries the heart,
In sor-row's hold,
Then ten-der love
To us imparts
The Mo-ther of the soul.

The Mo-ther of the soul....


As the song faded, the priest waited for the next to begin, having utterly forgotten all else. For him, the song conjured images of helping others, of making sure all was right and proper with the world, according to Zephiris' design, especially during times like these.
“Brother Maric?”
The priest looked up with a start and saw the High Priest halfway turned in his direction. “Yes, holy brother?”
“No need to stand out there. Come, it's good to hear your voice.”
“Oh, of course,” said the priest, and took a step forward. Then he remembered, and his previous mood returned. “Oh, that's right.”
“What is it?”
The next song had already started, and the High Priest came out to stand with him. The priest inclined his head respectfully. “Holy brother, there is an elf without who claims to have been sent from the White Council in Eldin.”
There was a pause. “They came here? To the temple?”
“I don't know if it's true. He clearly looks to be a warrior, rather than an emissary. But he was unarmed, and a merchant woman was with him saying they bore news of the shadow demons. Brother Jaret took them to the holdfast.”
“Not the sunroom?”
“We thought it best to keep our options open, given the circumstances. When you see them I think you'll agree.”
“I see.”

The High Priest pondered for a moment. “Yes, I'd better see them now, before our duties must begin.”
The priest nodded, and the High Priest exited the chapel.

In the high, quiet corridor, in such contrast to the reverberating harmonies of a moment before, the High Priest's thoughts were free-flowing and fast. They had to be kept up with to be thought at all. Thus the elder priest made his way along the branching corridor, until he saw brother Jaret. “Brother Maric informed me about our visitors,” he said.
“They're waiting for you.”

The High priest stopped in front of the door, taking a moment to finalize his intentions. He stood with his forearms together, thinking about a number of things directly and indirectly related to this turn of events. When he was satisfied, he unfolded his arms and took a step, turned the knob, and opened the door.
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Re: Sephiris: The Price of Peace

Post by Guest on Tue Jan 24, 2012 3:48 pm

Mandor > Caluk ~ Noon of DAY 17

Caluk was empty. Barthon knew that a few of those who had survived the nightly attacks had fled to Aram days ago. But he had expected to see more of the townsfolk here, barricaded in some of the buildings somewhere. Caluk was a ghost town. Barthon suspected that the only reason it hadn’t been looted yet was because of the universal danger across Mandor. Bandits would be hard-pressed to survive outside of the walls of a city. For whatever reason, the shadows could not penetrate cities; at least, not without forcing a way through the gate or flying over the walls.

It was obvious that the inhabitants of Caluk had left in a hurry. Numerous carts lined the streets, carts that were filled with supplies that some of the farmers had attempted to take with them. Barthon had ordered all of those carts to be dragged back to the center of town. They would need all of the supplies they could find. Once they arrived, he ordered the knights to disperse and scout the town. They would need a general understanding before they could plan anything. If things went well, they would have a palisade around the town’s center well underway before night fell. Several sections of the town would be lost to them at night, but they could expand outward slowly during the days.

“This is worse than I expected,” said Walter, standing to Barthon’s left. “Where did everyone go? And why are there are not even any bodies…”
Simion stood quietly at Barthon’s right. He had searched his family’s home, but it had been as empty as the rest. Food and other supplies were missing, but nothing hinted at their deaths. Simion had taken it stoically; that worried Barthon, but it was also relieving. At the boy’s age, he should have been grieving at the possible loss of his family. Perhaps he had been separated from them for too long now, or perhaps he just had hope that they had survived somehow. Either way, his calm demeanor did much to help Barthon concentrate on other matters.

“Maybe they went somewhere safer?” Simion said. His voice didn’t quiver or crack. He sounded much the same as he had before their arrival. Perhaps he would talk to him when things calmed down. It just didn’t seem normal.

“Like an evacuation?” Walter asked. “That is possible, but Aram is the nearest city. I cannot imagine why they would go to Rochham before Aram. Access to the river, maybe, but they would be sitting ducks for the shadows. The road there is rougher as well.”

“Find out if anyone knows the region,” Barthon said, more to Walter than Simion. Despite his “rank,” the knights would be unlikely to follow any orders the young boy gave him. “We need to know if there is anywhere else nearby they might have fled to, somewhere that offers shelter closer than Aram or Roccham.”

“Good idea,” said Walter. “I can also organize a scout party, though that will take away from our resources here.”

“That is fine,” Barthon said. If they couldn’t find the inhabitants of Caluk, then the defenses no longer needed to be rushed. They would have to bring farmers in from Aram instead. “Use what you need to keep the scouting organized.” Barthon shook his head and sighed. “I’m sorry, Walter. You know more about this than I do.”

“I am only here as an advisor, Barthon. You are giving the orders.” Walter smiled at Barthon and saluted before departing to carry out his orders.

“I can look in the baron’s manor!” Simion said excitedly. “Maybe he has a map of the region.”

“Good thinking, Simion. Just find me before nightfall. I don’t want you out on your own when those things attack.”

“I will, Barthon,” Simion said. The boy sped off without another word, heading down the street toward the baron’s manor. They had passed by it during their initial pass of the town. The manor was enormous, a sign of the town’s wealth. Caluk supplied much of central Mandor with its extensive farmlands, and it’s income was lucrative. Simion’s own parents had offered their land here, small as it was, in exchange for training Simion in the Order. That was an offer that the Order could not pass down. Farmland in Caluk was worth more than its price in gold.

Knights and their squires passed back and forth in front of Barthon, carrying supplies to and fro or just cleaning up the streets. Despite the supplies they had brought with them from Aram, they would need to use whatever they could find here to erect a proper palisade. The baron’s manor was near the town center, and would be included within the perimeter. Barthon preferred using the actual town center, which the Caluk inhabitants had utilized largely as a type of bazaar, for their temporary headquarters. If anything happened to the baron’s manor, Barthon did not want man coming to him or the Order for compensation.

“What about us?” came Fabre’s voice several steps behind Barthon. He had almost forgotten about them. “What are we supposed to do here?”

“He means,” Iaed said, “what can we do to help?”

“You two haven’t worked together before, right?” Barthon asked as he turned to face them. He had been a bit uncomfortable with their story earlier. Fabre had lost his pairing, and Iaed had never had one. Yet they said that a mage pairing required a certain degree of… compatibility. He wasn’t sure that what the Society of Conscious Thought had sent him was anything they could afford to lose.

“Not true,” said Iaed. “We’ve all worked in groups before. I’ve been in several circles with Fabre, we’ve just never worked together directly. But if we could not, the Society would not have sent us.”

“Good,” Barthon said. “Today you will get a chance to test your compatibility.” He pointed to a small wooden house; here on the edge of town all of the houses were small. “Knock that down.”

“Are you serious?” Fabre asked. “That is someone’s home. That ‘someone’ will expect to come back to it.”

“If they are still alive,” Barthon said. “I’ve seen what has happened across much of Mandor. I’ve seen the dying people at Toad Hollow, the massacred soldiers at Carsiun Keep. Others have been more fortunate, but at this point I’m placing lives above property. The Order of Gedrich can afford to pay to replace a few houses. But the palisade is going to need to be reinforced, and the boards of this house will work perfectly.”

“Whatever you say, Sir Knight,” said Fabre, shrugging his shoulders. “Iaed, are you ready?”

Rather than responding, Iaed began chanting in draconic, the language of the dragons through which the magic flowed. Barthon had to admit that he did not really understand it, but he would certainly make use of it where he could. Fabre joined in on the chant, his voice lower than Iaed’s yet somehow matching it perfectly. The words and rhythm of the chant were all too foreign to Barthon for him to have any sense of what was going on, but he certainly felt the effects. The wind began stirring around him, kicking dirt and leaves into the air in a tumultuous dance. The house suddenly shook, as if had been beaten with an invisible hammer. Again it shook. Finally, with a blast of air that nearly knocked Barthon off of his feet, the house was ripped apart. Small pieces of wood seemed to rain down from the sky. The larger boards were spinning across the street and fields beyond. The result was more…chaotic than Barthon had imagined, but it had certainly done the job. And in far less time than if he had employed knights to dismantle it by hand.

“Great work,” Barthon said once the mages had ceased their chanting. The wind had ceased as well, as abruptly as it had begun. “That will do for now. If we need more, you have your choice of houses. Just don’t touch anything within the town’s center. The baron’s manor is not something the Order can afford to replace. Unless, of course, things really get out of hand…”

“I don’t think it will come to that,” Iaed said. “You seem to have things well in hand.”

“Except the people who used to live here,” Fabre said, placing his hands on his hips. Barthon was learning that the man really liked to provoke him. “Might be useful to find out where they’ve gone to.”

“I think what Fabre is saying, Sir Camlin, as that he would like to volunteer us for the first…what do you call it… scouting group?” Iaed gave Fabre a mischievous smirk, and Barthon thought he felt his heart jump. Almost as pleasant was the surprised look on Fabre’s face.

“Scouting detail, Iaed. And that is generous of you to offer, Fabre, though I cannot imagine why you did not just come out and say so.” If the man wanted to play games with him, Barthon thought, he could play back. “Find Lord Drake; he should be somewhere near the town center organizing the detail now.”

“Of course, Sir Camlin,” Fabre said. There was no hint of sarcasm in his voice, nor anger in his face, but Barthon was not foolish enough to think the man had been put in his place. Iaed winked at him as the two mages departed, heading toward the center of town to find Walter. Again he felt his face heating. As much as he liked her, and he had to admit that he did like her, he could not let himself be distracted by her. He just wasn’t sure how to go about that… His limited experience with Jeanne had not prepared him for situations like this.

Work, of course, was always a good way to clear your mind. “Sir Byron!” Camlin yelled at a passing knight. The knight stopped and turned toward Barthon, saluting as he saw who it was.

“Yes, Sir Camlin?” Byron said, walking toward him.

“Let us gather some eager squires and page boys. There is lifting to be done.”

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Re: Sephiris: The Price of Peace

Post by Guest on Sat Apr 21, 2012 11:01 pm

Mandor > Caslemon > Ragner’s Manor ~ dawn of DAY 17

Ragner watched transfixed as Duke Cyril Omoron, outfitted for war, walked toward him. The hall was long and dark, the torches set in their sconces causing the light to dance along the edges of shadow. The flickering light would momentarily highlight the form of one of the Duke’s guards hiding on the edge of visibility. They seemed to be everywhere, staring at him, and then completely gone. The Duke strode toward Ragner purposefully, a long scroll unrolling from his hand. It seemed to drop forever, never getting any longer though he could see words on the reverse side stream downward. Ragner knew what was coming. He wanted to flee but he couldn’t. A heavy weight seemed to hold him still; a sense of inevitability crushed his chest with an iron grip.
The Duke spoke, though his mouth did not move. The voice did not even seem to come from the Duke’s direction; instead it came from all around. But Ragner knew it was his father’s voice. The words were jumbled, as if spoken under water, but their intent was clear. The Duke was sentencing him to death. The scroll held a list of his crimes, his short fallings, and other discrepancies. Not the least of which, Ragner knew, was his failure to kill Barthon Camlin.
Ragner found himself suddenly moving backward. The great weight that had held him still was gone. He turned completely and ran down the dark hallway, leaving the light of the torches behind. Though he could not see the guards, he knew that they were there. They were the Duke’s men, as he had once been. Just because he was the Duke’s son did not mean that they would stay their swords. The hall seemed to go one forever, but Ragner knew he just needed to keep going until he reached the end of it. If he could just reach the end… then he could make it to Sephalia. The Duke would not be able to touch him there. His father would not be able to find him.
Suddenly Ragner found himself standing on the docks at Ostley, the abandoned town where he had narrowly escaped the dark beasts of the night. The town was still empty. The creatures seemed to be gone as well. Instead of those nightmarish beasts, Ragner saw Rurik. He was standing at the end of the docks, arms crossed and feet spread, iron mace hanging from his belt. The only boat left was directly behind him. If Ragner wanted it, he was going to have to get through Rurik.
Rurik uncrossed his arms, and in one of his hands he held his father’s scroll, the one that had ordered Ragner’s execution. The bottom of the scroll dropped, and it unfurled endlessly just as it had before. A list of Ragner’s past, present and future failings. In Rurik’s other hand was his mace, a weapon far more gruesome than a sword. Ragner had not seen him grab for it; it was just suddenly there. As Rurik took a step toward him, Ragner took several steps back. He looked behind him, toward the center of Ostley. What he saw made his heart skip a beat; a mass of swirling shadows had appeared. They weren’t the tricks of light, like what had been hiding the guards in the hall. No… these were the shadow beasts, the monsters that had nearly killed him. The ones that were just as responsible as Barthon Camlin for ruining him.
Rurik was in front of him, ready to run him down. The shadow beasts were behind him, pressing against his back. Waiting for him. Ragner ran toward them. Between the two evils, Ragner had proven that he could best the shadows. It was Rurik he was truly terrified of. He glanced back at the man, and suddenly he wasn’t the enormous mace-wielding man, but a bull. An enormous, red-eyed bull with iron horns. The bull charged him, and Ragner nearly tripped over his feet to get away. The Shadows or the Bull. The Shadows or the Bull. It seemed that all Ragner could do for himself was choose how he wanted to die. The Shadows or the Bull.
It was the Shadows that got to him first. He felt them grab his shoulders, shake him like a ferocious animal killing its prey. Rurik was behind him again, running to steal his prey back from the shadows. Wait… was it Rurik? Now it was the bull again. Ragner was pushed down. The Shadows were forcing him to the ground. He was kneeling in a pool of frigid water, and his head was being pushed toward it. He tried to resist, but he didn’t have the strength. Besides, the Iron Bull was coming for him. Hadn’t he chosen this? He felt the sting of the ice cold water slap his face as the Shadows pushed him into it.


“Wake up, my Lord!” a voice cried out in the darkness. Ragner tried to push him away, afraid that the Iron Bull had finally caught up to him. The water in his eyes made it hard to see, but he could tell that the man before him had a candle. “My Lord!” The man sounded frantic, not like the Iron Bull would sound. The voice, it sounded familiar. His servant, Edgard.

“Did you… Did you throw water on me?” Ragner wiped the cold droplets from his face with a blanket.

“You refused to wake up, my Lord. I apologize, but it is just past dawn. I would advise you get up. He is coming.”

“Who is coming,” Ragner asked slowly, “at this ungodly hour?” His confusion was quickly fading, and his anger was building.

“I believe you spoke of him in your sleep as I was trying to wake you. You said ‘The Iron Bull’.” Edgard’s right brow rose as he spoke the moniker, and a small hint of a smile split the corner of his mouth.

“Who?” Ragner was suddenly wide awake. “Rurik…” Somehow, despite his nightmare, or perhaps because of it, he had completely forgotten his situation. He had fallen asleep last night wishing that the past few days had all just been a nightmare.

“Yes,” the servant said. He placed the candle on the side table near the heard of Ragner’s bed and reached for a bundle of folded clothes. “I would guess you have only a few seconds to throw this on before ‘The Iron Bull’ knocks down your door.”

“You seem amused,” Ragner said, noticing the look Edgard had given him when he mentioned Ragner talking in his sleep. That added to his irritation even more. It seemed that every day could indeed only get worse.

“Not at all, my Lord. After all, it is my job at stake.”

“Of course. How unfortunate it would be for you should I perish.” Ragner pulled on the clean shirt the servant had brought him. He still felt dirty from being in that prison cell, despite having washed and changed the previous night. Edgard grabbed his shorts has he changed from those. He slammed his feet into his boots while pulling up and buttoning his pants. By the time he had regained his balance, the door to his room was slammed open. Rurik stood there, chest full of air and looking like he was ready to blow someone over.

“Leave us,” Rurik half-growled at Edgard, keeping his eyes on him until the man left the room. “A commander’s got to rise at least an hour earlier than his men,” he told Ragner, softening his voice a little -- for a man like Rurik, that meant on the verge of shouting. “How can you make sure they’re prepared otherwise? How can they respect you when you sleep until late morning like some lady?”

He took a few quick strides toward the window, looking at something outside. “’Sleep during the day and you’ll miss the sunshine’ my mother used to say.” Turning around, he looked at Ragner, almost expectantly.
“Well, m’lord, have you decided what to do on this fine morn?”

Ragner refrained from rubbing the sleep from his eyes. “I don’t know. I haven’t…” Ragner also refrained from admitting that he had not yet thought about it. He was sure that was not what Rurik wanted to hear. “I haven’t made up my mind yet.” Ragner racked his mind for something that would keep Rurik preoccupied for the day, at least until the Iron Bull’s soldiers got there. He forced himself to walk up to the window to stand next to Rurik, peering outside the window at the grounds of his manor. They were not nearly so neat as they had been before he left on his doomed mission.

“I have some maps of Caslemon that I’m sure you and your soldiers will need. I can show you those, perhaps point out a few establishments that I think could use a visit. I’m not sure it would be wise to go there without a force of arms. Not after…” Ragner cut off his comment before he could finish it. Rurik was literally like a bull ready to charge. All he needed was to see the color red. Suddenly Ragner thought of something that might put him on more solid ground with the man. He was, after all, younger.
“I also have sparring field behind the barracks. It might be a good way to focus our energy and let out our… steam.” The dream popped back into his head as soon as the words left his mouth. He remembered seeing Rurik there, with his iron mace hanging from his belt. Ragner had the feeling that he was playing with fire, but it was too late now. Retracting his offer would only get him burned.

Rurik frowned for a moment, no doubt in though. After coming to a decision, he looked at Ragner and nodded. “The sparring field sounds good.” He gave the young lord an assessing look. “The Duke instructed me to make sure you can handle yourself alone. After practicing we can look at those maps you mentioned… a man often views things clearer after working his muscles.”

A pause followed, during which Rurik roughly took one of Ragner’s hands and turned it palm up, examining it. He nodded and looked pleased for the first time since he had arrived. “Calloused hands… I respect that in a man. You practice often… swordsman I take it? You don’t have the weight for much else.” As if becoming aware of the casualness in his tone, he looked out of the window again, letting go of Ragner’s hand. After another brief period of silence, he turned to walk out of the room and said “Swords it is then. Meet me in the training field once you’ve eaten, and be quick about it.” For once, there didn’t seem to be a frown on his face as he left.

Ragner blew out a deep breath as Rurik left the room, leaving the door open behind him. “That went well…” he said to no one in particular. He lifted his hands up and looked at them. He had never viewed his calluses as a respectable mark. They seemed more like an inconvenient scar. But if they got the Iron Bull off of his back, he could manage to work in a few more. If he was lucky, he could even give that unbearable old man a few of his own. Ragner grabbed his coat from its peg as he left his room. His spirits were finally up, for the first time in… days? He wasn’t really sure. It had been a long string of bad luck. Today, in the sparring field, that might change.

Edgard was waiting in the hall just outside his door, head down subserviently as Rurik passed beyond sight down the stairs. He looked up as Ragner entered the hall, and a mischievous smile lit his face. “Well,” Edgard said, “you didn’t piss him off. I swear there was steam coming from his ears last night.”

“Watch your tongue, Edgard,” Ragner warned. “If he hears you, you may very well lose it.” Edgard’s smile dropped instantly.
“Do you really think he would…?” Edgard asked.
“Breakfast,” Ragner said, ignoring his servant’s question. A small bit of payback for the man’s jesting before Rurik’s arrival. “Find Niles, and help him with breakfast. Make something the Bull can digest. He is going to need it.”
“What do you mean?” Edgard asked. “What is going on today?”
“I am going to show Rurik that there is more to respect about me than a few calluses on my hands.”

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Re: Sephiris: The Price of Peace

Post by Kalon Ordona II on Thu May 17, 2012 4:59 am

Sakira-thani > D'chalgtmendrir, just south of the Sakira-thani/Eldin border ~ morning of DAY 21

Sithred-makh Ragabek lounged expansively in the cushions of his tower. He was lying with the back of his head facing east, and the late morning sunlight perfectly illuminated the expensive book he held propped on his belly. It was a human work of fiction, gorgeously bound and illustrated, The Blue Knight, by Farius Something of Mandor, and things were finally starting to get good. "Farius sen," muttered the portly, middle-aged dragon, "Farius dezsan..." He kept a claw on the page and turned back to the gilt and painted cover to check the author's name again. "Farius Torser," he enunciated carefully, remembering to round his lips as best he could for the humans' circular glyph. Humans and their second names.

Ragabek turned back to the page he was on. There was a picture of the knight with his lady--finally--and the first word of the chapter started with a very large and ornate 'T' glyph. The dragon read the human language slowly but well.

“'The knight, entered the fort, proper, from the gardens, on the west side, where he had picked, a cluster of pink, rose-tree flowers.'”
With the illustration and decorative glyph, that was enough to fill both pages. He turned the page with the tip of a claw.
“'“Oh Meraph, how beautiful,” said the knight's lady'--z'gan.” The dragon started over, stretching his higher voice to sound dainty. “'“Oh Meraph, how beautiful,”'”--it was a poor approximation--“'said the knight's, lady. “Beauty for beauty on this, bright morning, my most fair Lanyssa.” He stroked her cheek, where the sun had, caused it to shine. And as they, reached for each other--'”

“Sithred-makh Ragabek,” came a voice from beyond the thick curtain in the far wall.

Ragabek's head fell back over the cushion with an exasperated sigh. “What!” he called, looking upside-down out the bright window. “And speak in human today! I want to practice.”
“Must I, Sithr--Llord Ragabek?”
“I know, they only talk like us when they ask a question. But yes, must you. I mean you must. Now what is it?”
The voice hesitated. “Um, uh, not, in city?”
“Outside,” Ragabek supplied, drawing out the word, trying not to be impatient.
“Autside... there is dragon, um, hi sithred sheng, um, and... other?”
Ragabek pulled his head back up. “Two?”
“To what?”
“Dragons.”
The other hesitated, probably with a blank, helpless look. “Um, y... yes?”
“No, no. Hi is two. You meant two sithred. It is their number.”
“I thought to was... the going?”
“It is both.”
“Bauth?”
“No, both.”
“What is bouth?”
“You are not saying it the right way. Both is... seka sheng hi. Too is the going and the second and the number, but you are supposed to draw them different.”
“I don't want to speak human anymore.”
Ragabek sat up. “You said something right!”
“Dezsan?”
“Tansa k'hara gsen sen ten!” Ragabek closed the book carefully, and resignedly set it aside. He had to vault himself upward with arms and tail to get out of the cushions. “Very well. Come in, come in. Wait!” Ragabek took a moment to smooth the wrinkles from his long, patterned clothing and wide sash. “Ten.” He struck an erect pose. “Psendra.”

The servant entered, dressed in finery that was not quite so fine as the lord of D'chalgtmendrir. He was somewhat thinner than Ragabek, but then most dragons were. Ragabek was fairly certain he could still fly if he wanted to; he just hadn't bothered in quite some time. Ragabek's skin was fairer, too, though he considered that a pleasing aspect of himself, along with his black-tipped horns and perfectly average height. And he liked to think his slightly wider neck made him seem a little more ferocious than other dragons. It did seem to make him a slightly better magician, if only because it dropped his higher voice so that he hadn't had to work too hard at getting more notes.

What followed was a restating of the servant's news and a launch into extensive preparations. This was a happening grander than any in a long time. Two Sithred K'handrar, at one of the farthest reaches of Sakira-thani. It promised to be the talk of the city for weeks or more. Something was afoot, and it was Ragabek's duty--and his intrigue--to be at the center of it all.


Sephalia > Telmural > High Temple of Zephiris ~ morning of DAY 21

The first thing Áirhath had done when they entered the room was to take note of as much as he could of his surroundings. They were in a space big enough to provide a comfortable area around a large, sturdy table and four similarly large, sturdy chairs. The floor was carpeted in a blue and green floral pattern. The walls were completely lined with books. Light came in from two squat, rectangular windows set high in the far wall and the wall to the left of the entrance, above the bookshelves. The light that came in was oddly prismatic or multi-layered. Áirhath also noted a second door exactly like the one they had come through, both with a longer than normal entryway, like very short corridors. The furniture was made of some sort of varnished wood, but it was all built so thick and squarish, Áirhath thought nothing short of a battle hammer would damage any of it. The only other thing Áirhath could see in the room was what appeared to be a smallish metal square set into the floor in the far left corner. Despite the quanity of books, the room wasn't all that musty, as if perhaps the room was used or aired relatively often.

Áirhath had had the distinct feeling that the priests were too casual about letting people in, even if they had expressed displeasure. Neither Áirhath nor Katerina had brought weapons into a temple, of course, and the two had just been arguing over whether that decision had been wise in hindsight, and whether it mattered at this point, and even whether it would have done more harm than good. Áirhath didn't know why they were debating the subject except that something felt wrong, even perilous.

"...as long as--" Áirhath broke off the instant he heard a sound at the door. An instant later it opened, and a clean-shaven, aging human walked into the room.

"I am told you have traveled far to speak with the High Priest?" The man left unsaid that he held that position. No one would have doubted it. "Manis Aquilas is my name."
He paused. Áirhath looked at Katerina. Was he asking for an introduction?

Katerina kept her voice reverent, whether from shrewdness or genuine respect--or both--Áirhath couldn't have judged. "Katerina Forbes." She was too far away to extend a hand, assuming one shook hands with high priests. Áirhath was closer, but he wasn't about to guess at the proper customs. "Áirhath Aeryän," he said.

"I'm told you were sent from the White Council in Eldin," the man prompted.

Not for the first time, Áirhath was keenly aware at how much his mission had been affected by the appearance of the shadow beasts. He had never intended to be so conspicuous; his original assignment was to covertly gather information. The shadow beasts ruined any chance of that. But their ubiquitous presence allowed him to come out in the open without revealing his true purpose to those in power. And the high priest was anything but powerless.

Áirhath had no way to know if the shadow beasts troubled his own people as well as the humans, but that was the story he needed. His one rueful thought was that, all too likely, the story was true.

"In my land, I--"
"--we--" Kate reminded.
"--we, fight the shadow beast, but maybe human fight it also? I see--have seen this on the our," he indicated himself and Katerina, "path to here. We, want help."
"Want to help, he means," said Kate.
"It is that." Áirhath nodded. "You know when the shadow beast first appear?"
"We also have experiences with the beasts, having passed through Shadewood. We've examined at length what patterns we could discern, and wish to share our findings in the hope that it will better prepare the rest of us."

"That is most admirable," said the high priest. "What have you found?"

Katerina began to describe the encounters they had faced, how the beasts seemed to scale their numbers according to those of the group they attacked, and a number of other observations.

"That confirms what many have speculated. I don't think it will change what anyone is doing about it, but the greater certainty will help it get done." He paused, thinking, then turned to Áirhath. "To answer your question, the earliest accounts of the shadow beasts' appearance agree that it all started just over a fortnight ago."

That was close to when the White Council had felt the surge of energy. Áirhath was in a position to probe further, indirectly. "Is--was--there any sign or portent of this... beasts?"

"I think perhaps," Manis said, "you already know the answer to that question. Surely your people felt something a few days earlier. It would be three weeks ago, now. Have the elves found an answer to it?"

Though the man hadn't been unkind, Áirhath didn't like the way he had asked the question: as if he already knew the answer. The elf tried to angle the issue. "In my land, the White Council watch the sky in the night. The lights tell us when the sun dims, when the cycle renew--even strange thing. --s," he corrected. "The star say strange thing will come, but shadow beast did not come until after. We try to find out what is the strange thing."

"The heavens declared it? Fascinating...." The high priest appeared to ponder this information. Áirhath wondered what that meant. "Do you know, the common folk in this area have taken to calling them darklings? The beasts?"

Áirhath doubted what that could possibly have to do with anything. "Haeí... One said that in the bridge city." Áirhath felt himself being put at a disadvantage. The human was taking control of the conversation, and Áirhath couldn't do much about it because he didn't know enough about human lands and customs.

Katerina noticed and came to the rescue. "What does that have to do with anything?" she said. "If you don't mind my asking."

"Everything," said the high priest, pausing, it seemed, just to watch them wait for him to go on. "I will explain." He walked over to one of the book-lined walls and pulled a volume from a shelf at chest height. He held it up to them. It was a plain tan color, with a reddish binding. "Do you see this book?"
Áirhath didn't answer stupid questions; he said nothing. Katerina did at least nod.
"Some people wouldn't call this a book. Some would call it a volume. Which kinds of people would make that verbal replacement?" Manis waited a moment, then answered his own question. "The intelligent, the aspiring, or the familiar." Again the high priest waited a moment before making his point. "It doesn't take the first two to put together a new, easier term for the shadow beasts, and anyway most folk aren't overly intelligent or aspiring. What does that tell you?" He slipped the volume back into place among its series. "The people are becoming familiar--accustomed, if not comfortable--with the shadow beasts."

There was a silence. Áirhath thought he understood the words, but he didn't comprehend what the man was trying to tell him. "Are they still afraid?"

"Of course, but they are having to ignore those feelings. While all the higher circles of humans, elves--and it has to be assumed dragons as well--worry about what is going on, the everyday worker has to accept the new dimness of their world. Life has to go on. For them, there is no other choice."

Áirhath needed to hear what the human was leading up to. He couldn't start putting together what all of it was supposed to mean until he could see the larger picture. "Why tell us this?"
"A measure of advice, and a courtesy."
"But why?"
"The first is because you at least, if not both of you, will need to be involved in these higher circles. In a way, you already are. The second is because you will not like part of that process."

Áirhath didn't like the sound of that at all. "Explain this."

"Precisely because of your presence here, it is obvious that the elves indeed have felt the general increase in energy and have sent you here, not because of the shadow beasts, but to investigate how much the humans know about the change. And if the elves felt it, there can be little doubt the dragons have as well. And if dragons sense power, they will pursue it, as will all the greedy persons in Sephalia and probably all those in elvendom as well. This will cause great upheaval across all lands, and if not for these very shadow beasts, I have no doubt that we would soon have seen the collapse of Sakira's Treaty."

He let those words hang in the air for a time.

"The good news is, yes. Unlike elves or dragons, we humans know exactly why there is that feeling of 'more' in the world. The bad news is that, unfortunately, neither one of you can at this time be allowed to share this knowledge. We will have to keep you here for a time."

Katerina was outraged. "What?!"
Áirhath was only slightly less irate, and only because he had half expected this. "You mean to make us prisoner?"
"It would be better if you did not see it that way, but essentially, yes." The man remained firm but, nevertheless, somehow still not unkind. "Would you rather I had lied to you?"
"How much is a time?" said Áirhath?
"And how will it go for you when the King hears of this?" said Katerina.
"A number of days, I should think, at the least. But you misunderstand. We are not your enemies. Rather we must do what is best for Sephalia. Indeed, the world. At this time I can give you no choice in the matter, but you will not be neglected."
"Our companions," Katerina put in.
"Will be informed of your cooperation, should they come searching for you."
"Any word might have another meaning," Áirhath said lowly, half to himself and half for Katerina's benefit. They wouldn't let Áirhath or Katerina speak to their companions even under supervision, because anything they said or did could be a special message.
"Just so," the High Priest confirmed. "And now if you will forgive me, I must attend to the morning ceremonies."

The man slipped smoothly across the floor and out of the room. Then, ominously, a heavy booming sound came from the doorway. Or rather, two at once, one from where the High Priest had gone, and the other in another corner of the room, where the second door was. The silence that followed was palpable, if not as suppressive as the corridor had been.

Áirhath and Katerina looked at each other. "Sëlthien," said the elf, the word laced with such human irony that the woman could not help a dark chuckle as she echoed in her own language. "Just excellent."
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Re: Sephiris: The Price of Peace

Post by Guest on Sat Dec 29, 2012 4:49 am

Mandor > Caluk ~ Evening of DAY 17

Sir Walter Drake led the scouting detail on his horse, though most of those accompanying him were on foot, including the mage pair. There were signs they might miss on horseback, yet horses could travel faster. Walter had to try and make the best of both options. Simion had found a map of the region in the mayor’s manor, as he had hoped. Included in that map were the mines near the base of the Blue Mountains. The mines weren’t all that far from Caluk, and Walter hoped that they might find at least some of the survivors hiding within them.

But, as they made their way across the farmlands between Caluk and the mines, Walter had the knights examining everything for signs that might disprove his theory. He didn’t want them making their way to the mines when evidence pointed them elsewhere.

So far, signs were everywhere… but they weren’t proving anything. Trails had been blazoned through the crops in every direction, and they told no story that Walter could read. Even his two best trackers, Orean and Kemetti, could discern nothing. There were supplies dropped here and there, but some led toward the mines and some away. Walter could tell himself that it meant this was the direction the refugees went, but without looking in every direction around Caluk, there was no way to know for sure.

“Isn’t there some kind of spell you can cast to make this easier?” Walter asked, half-sarcastically. Iaed and Fabre were walking near enough to hear him, bending low over the ground in search of… something. He wasn’t sure they even knew what they were supposed to be looking for, but he wasn’t going to turn away volunteers.

“Why, yes,” Iaed said, standing up. She crossed one arm across her chest, just under her rather appealing breasts, and she gripped her chin with her other hand. “Now, why hadn’t I thought of that before? Perhaps I like breaking my back over crops in search of Zephiris knows what? Or maybe I thought it unnecessary in the company of an order of knights who claim to know what they are doing?”

“I had to ask,” Walter said, turning away from the irate mage. His horse, Skafra, responded to his movements with a practiced ease. “We are quickly running out of daylight. Whether or not the refugees are there, we may want to hole up in the mines ourselves.”

Can’t they get in?” Fabre asked. “The Shadows, I mean.”

“Not likely,” Walter responded. “Or they would have already invaded the cities. Solid walls seem to keep them out for some reason.” Walter looked out across the field in search of his trackers. “Sir Kemetti!” he yelled, to the first that he spotted. The tracker trotted over to him until he was standing in arm’s reach of Skafra.

“Yes, Lord Drake,” Kemetti said, saluting sharply. Kemetti was a good man, but more of a lone wolf than a true soldier. It made him an excellent tracker, along with some other admiral qualities, but left him lacking in other areas.

“I want you and Sir Orean to lead the scouts on foot to the mines. I don’t think we should try and reach Caluk by nightfall, and we won’t discover anything if we give up now.”

With another salute, Kemetti turned and trotted away. Walter turned to Iaed and Fabre. “I expect you two to do whatever you can to keep my men safe if need be. You may be on loan to Simion, but right now Simion’s mission is to find his family.” Before either of them could respond, Walter spurred his horse forward. Signaling the other knights on horseback spread throughout the fields, he made his way toward the mines. It would be better if he and a few knights could arrive at the mines first to prepare any defenses they might need. He trusted that his knights would arrive before nightfall.

From here, the mines were nothing more than a spur of sharp rocks jutting out from the larger mountains beyond. He pushed Skafra hard, measuring the time it took for the spur to become a series of individual features, and then looming landforms with signs of previous human activity. He looked back over his shoulder as he reined Skafra to a stop. Caluk was just visible in the distance, but the outlines of the knights were hidden by the tall crops in the fields.

“Do you think they will make it in time?” asked Trimus, one of the knights on horseback.

“Yes,” Walter said slowly, still staring at the distant Caluk. “Just barely.”

“There are a lot of damaged supplies out here, Lord Walter,” said Inshull. He was an ugly brute that happened to be an excellent horse rider, and he hailed from the Mountains of Smoke in the southernmost boundary of human lands. He had at first been an unlikely candidate for the order, but had since proven to be more than adequate.

“Look through it, Inshull,” Walter said, dropping the formal “sir” for lack of patience. “Trimus, look around for anything we can use to form a perimeter. If we can’t get into the mines, we are going to have to make our stand here.” Both knights saluted before riding off to accomplish their tasks.

The sun had long ago disappeared behind the Blue Mountains, but Walter could judge their remaining time by the darkening shadows. It made these jagged hills look ominous, as if they were themselves the breeding pens of the dangerous Shadows.

It wasn’t long before a call came from Trimus. “Over here, Lord Drake! I’ve found the entrance!” Walter led Skafra to the sound of Trimus’s voice. Trimus was at the base of a wedge-shaped jut of rocks. It looked as if the hill had caved inward leaving a sheer edge. At the far back, where both sides touched, was a wooded door reinforced with heavy beams. Trimus was pulling on pushing on the door in turns, but it wouldn’t budge. Walter slipped off from Skafra’s saddle, leaving the horse with Trimus’s own.

Examining the door, Walter could see that it was designed to be pulled open, rather than pushed. Grabbing an iron bar leaning against a pile of otherwise empty wooden crates, Walter slid the bar into the metal handle of the door.

“You pull one side, and I’ll pull the other,” Walter said. “On three…” Walter dug his boots into the earth, trying to get a good purchase. If the door wasn’t as stuck as Trimus made it seem, they were going to have a heck of a time getting up off of their backs.
“One…” Walter gripped the bar tighter, “two…” took a deep breath, “three!” and yanked with all of his might. The sound of splintering wood accompanied a foul smell that seemed to pour from the opening. Walter and Trimus trotted a few steps backward as the door opened, but they both managed to keep their feet. All of the other knights that had ridden with him were now behind them, peering into the darkness of the half-opened door. Walter pulled it the rest of the way open, trying to allow the fading light to reveal what was beyond. The only thing he caught was the stench.

“What happened in there,” Inshull asked.

“Bring me a torch,” Walter ordered. In moments, a knight placed one in his outstretched hand, already lit. Walter stepped through the doorway and into the darkness. He could smell sweat, blood, human waste, and even death. And when at last the light of the torch pushed back the darkness, he saw what remained of the refugees of Caluk.

***

“A very basic palisade is up, Sir Camlin,” Byron reported.

“Good,” Barthon responded. He was still staring at the map spread out across the mayor’s table. There had been multiple maps here, and this particular one gave a very detailed view of Caluk itself, rather than the countryside. It was a depressing sight; there was no way they could erect infallible defenses without destroying much of the outlying buildings. They hadn’t brought enough materials with them.

“Sir Camlin?”

“Hmm…?”

In order to expand the palisade outward, they would have to exponentially increase their materials. At some point, they were going to have sections of the town that just weren’t defended enough, and that was going to leave holes in their defenses. With the lives of the inhabitants of Caluk at stake, if they ever found them, Barthon couldn’t afford to leave holes in their defenses. Before proper farming could be done, he was going to have to send groups into the eastern forests for more wood.

“Uhhh… It’s almost nightfall, Sir Camlin. The shadows will be appearing shortly. Do you have any orders? Would you like to examine the defenses?”

Finally Barthon looked up from the map. Byron was staring him strangely. He felt like he had just pulled his face out of a pool of water, though he hadn’t been aware he was drowning. “Yes,” Barthon said. “I should see to them.” Barthon grabbed his blue-plumed helmet and followed Byron out of the building.

It was darker outside than he had thought. How long had he been staring at that map? “Is everyone in place and ready for battle?” Barthon asked.

“Yes, Sir Camlin.” Byron pointed to the nearest wall of the palisade, to the left of the manor. “That is our weakest point at the moment. With the mages off with Lord Drake, we ran out of time to gather more materials. Most of the knights will be concentrated here.”

The wall was built between two large buildings with flat rooftops. The buildings were stone reinforced with wood, sturdy enough to hold a good deal of weight. There were already supplies on those roofs for the knights. Arrows were the first line of defense against the shadows. If they were lucky, the rising sun would do most of the work for them. The walls just had to last long enough.

“Then Lord Drake hasn’t returned?” Barthon asked. If the scouts made it to the mines, then they had a chance. He knew Walter wouldn’t chance a night in the fields without any form of defense. He had to believe that Walter would lead those knights to safety.

“No, I’m afraid not. I stationed several nights on the western side, however, to keep a watch for them should they return during the night.”

“Don’t worry too much about it,” Barthon said. “I doubt Lord Drake would risk it. Focus on the Shadows.”

“Of course,” Byron said, lowering his head. Barthon doubted the knight would make any attempt to change the orders, but it needed to be said. A cool breeze through the visor of his helmet chilled the sweat on his face. He hadn’t even realized he was sweating so much. Was he that nervous? All of these men here tonight, they were all his responsibility. For his first day of command, the stakes were high. He couldn’t make any mistakes.

“I will help guard here, at the weaker palisade. Make use of the squires and pages to run supplies to where they are needed. If any side falls weak, everything will fall apart.”

“We won’t let that happen, Sir Camlin.” Byron sounded far more confident than Barthon felt. A horn sounded at the southern palisade, and then the east. Barthon took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Let’s do this.”

A quick sprint brought Barthon to the buildings supporting the western palisade wall, the weakest section of them all. A wooden ladder had been erected to bring the knights straight to the roof without having to maneuver through the building. As much as it felt like a waste of resources, it was a time saver. And that could mean more than a few more boards nailed across the palisade. There were four nights on the rooftop already, each of them armed with a bow. The building to Barthon’s right, the other supporting building for this section, also held four knights.

“Always in the thick of it, eh, Sir Camlin?” one of the knights remarked.

“I wouldn’t let you guys take all of the fun,” Barthon said, doing his best to smile. He was beginning to feel sick to his stomach.

"I don't know that you can do much without a bow," said another.

"He's in luck!" said the first. "I brought some rocks!"

"I will help hold the line if they break through," Barthon said, all humor lost to him. "I should not have let Fabre and Iaed leave. I could have used them here."

"The Order has always done well enough without mages, Sir Camlin," said a knight. He wasn't sure who had spoken; he was too focused on searching for signs of the Shadows. They should be appearing any second...
Right on cue, Barthon saw the first signs of movement in the town just beyond the palisade. The Shadows.

"Here they come!" Barthon yelled. Barthon tensed, knowing there was nothing he could do yet wanting to do something all the same. He suddenly envied Walter, out beyond the walls of the town and actually doing something. The archers were right: Barthon could not do anything without a bow. "Do you have an extra bow?" Barthon asked, turning around. He had never been very good with one, but it was better than standing there empty-handed.

"We have a few," said one of the knights. "Just in case." The knight rummaged through the supplies piled in the corner of the roof, pulling free a bow and a satchel of arrows. "Here you go."

Barthon took the bow and dropped the satchel at the edge of the roof. Kneeling, he placed an arrow on the string and pulled back, trying to remember what he had been taught. It wasn't much. He released the string at a hulking Shadow, some sort of mix of man and beast he thought, and hissed in anger when the arrow missed it by several feet. The knights were silent beside him, launching their arrows with considerably more accuracy. Barthon was sure they kept their tongues for fear of reprisal, though he would not have reprimanded them for stating the obvious. He should have paid more attention to his lessons.

"Where are those rocks?"

***

There were bodies splayed everywhere, men and women who had bled to death just within the doorway of the mine. At first Walter feared a repeat of Barthon's story of Carsiun Keep, but then he saw the huddled forms just beyond: the survivors of Caluk. There were far more alive than dead, yet far less altogether than he had hoped to see. Perhaps the rest had fled elsewhere.

"Bring water!" Walter yelled. "And any food we have!" The huddled people of Caluk seemed to shrink back at his voice. "It's alright," he said. "We're here to help you. We will hold off the Shadows until morning, and then we will escort you back to Caluk. There are more knights there to secure the town." Walter looked down at his feet. They were going to have to do something about the bodies. But first, there was something he needed to know. "Are there any survivors of the Altus family?"

Silence for a few long moments, and then: "They fled to Roccham, sir knight. Three days ago."

"May She guard their souls," Walter whispered to himself. "For his sake." Walter turned back to the knights still gathered at the entrance of the mine. "Inshull, start pulling the bodies out of here. I want this place cleaned. We can worry about what to do with the dead tomorrow. Trimus, you are in charge of the survivors. Make sure they all get food and water, whatever we have to spare. We will be heading back to Caluk in the morning." With saluts from each of the knights, Walter squeezed passed them and stepped outside. He had never been afraid of the dark, even as a boy. But this was something different. The night now held something to fear.

"Righteous Knights of the Order of Gedrich!" Walter called out to the remaining knights. Two others ran passed him with food and waterskins piled in their arms. "We have accomplished the first part of our mission: locating the survivors of Caluk. Too many have died, but we give thanks to Zephiris that any are alive at all. It is our duty tonight to make sure that every single one of them returns safely to their home. We will set up whatever perimiter we can manage, and we will hold off these beasts until the sun banishes them once again."

"Why can't we just go in there?" asked a knight, pointing to the entrance of the mines. A couple of the others nodded.

"Because I have seen what these things can do," Walter responded. "And I don't want those mines caving in on top of us. We will keep everyone near the entrance, and we will guard that entrance with our lives. Let's go, we're burning daylight!" The knights dispersed, and Walter gave directions as needed.

In the last hour of daylight they had left, they managed to form a low wall using the mining gear and crates, and supplies dropped by the refugees. As they added the final touches, the rest of the knights arrived, along with the mage pair.

"Iaed and Fabre," said Walter. "I will need you most of all. Whatever offensive magic you know, I need you to use. Keep as many of those shadows away from our defenses as you can. If we get overwhelmed, every one of us will die."

"No pressure," Iaed said, winking at Fabre. The male mage just rolled his eyes.

"Shadows!" yelled one of the knights standing near their low wall. "Sir Walter, they're coming!"

"Get into position!" Walter yelled. "Mages, attack them now!" Walter half expected to see fireballs and lightning drop down from the sky, but nothing happened at all. When he turned back to look at the mage pair, they were standing next to each other with their eyes closed. Walter could see their mouths moving, but they were too far away for him to hear what they were saying. He knew he would not have understood it even if he could hear. Walter waited for several more agonizingly long moments, and still nothing happened. He turned back to the wall, to what was beyond it, and addressed his knights.

"Fire at will!" he said to those with bows. "Take down whatever you can! Don't let any over this wall!"

Fortunately, there were not as many as he had feared. Perhaps most of them had been distracted by Caluk. They might even survive without the help of the mages. With that that, though, the ground seemed to erupt almost 200 feet out from the wall. Shadowed forms of wolves and men were thrown away from the impact, most of them dissolving as they tended to do. Walter still didn't know if that meant they were dead or if they just reformed until the dawn finally sent them away. It didn't really make a difference.

The Shadows came for the wall, and more arrows flew from it. Wolves and humanoids wisked away, the larger bear-shaped shadows plodded on unfathomed. This time Walter's hopes were realized; a wall of fire appeared, cutting the advancing shadows in half. Most of the faster beasts were on the near side, but most of the others were cut off. Walter prepared himself for the first of the wolf-shadows to reach the wall. Just as he raised his sword in preparation, an unnaturally strong gust of wind shoved him against the wall, and he toppled over.

"Sorry!" came Iaed's voice from behind him. Walter jumped up into a defensive position, but the wolves were on the ground as well. He wasn't sure if any of them had died, but it gave them a few seconds of reprieve. Not wasting any time, Walter jumped back over the wall. He noticed several other knights doing the same, looking around at their companions sheepishly.

"Stay focused," Walter said loudly. He didn't want any knights more concerned about their slip than the enemy still advancing. More arrows took out some of the wolf-shadows before the reached the wall again, but this time a few did make it over. They were almost effortlessly dispatched by the knights. Walter watched with satisfaction as Shadows crossed through the wall of fire, and seemed to be melted by it. But all too soon the wall of fire died out.

Walter turned back to Iaed and Fabre angrily. "What happened?" he demanded.

Fabre stared back at him angrily. "Nothing happened. You do your job and let us do ours!"

Walter bit off a sharp response and turned back to the Shadows. He knew there was a reason the Order did not make use of mages.

Geysers of flame shot up from the ground in seemingly random areas. Random, Walter thought, because often they shot up were there were no Shadows. Yet when they did hit one, even the bear-shadows died instantly. As if in response to the strong resistance, more shadows seemed to appear. Where before there were mostly wolves and humanoids, with a few larger shapes dispersed between, there were now faster creatures that were larger than any human Walter had ever seen. Typically, he could discern nothing more than their outline, and even then only when a geyser of flame added light to the area. The torches along the wall only offered so much light.

"Is this getting harder?" Trimus asked, somewhere to Walter's right. Another wave of wolf-shadows had reached the wall, and the larger shadows, bearing what looked like massive weapons, were just behind.

***

Shadows from the air, beasts that you couldn't see until they were upon you. Two of the knights on his roof were already lost to their strafing attacks. Barthon had been forced to order the knights to retreat from the roofs, otherwise there would have been no one left to defend the town. It was impossible to count how many there were, but he had seen more than one roof attacked at once.

Bryon was looking at him expectantly. Barthon's mind was racing. The palisade was shaking badly, and several of the boards had been weakened to the point that he was sure they would soon fall off completely. Runners had told him that they other areas were all holding up to the weight, but this portion had him worried. He could no longer see what was amassed beyond, pushing up against it. It was as if the wind itself was blowing against it.

"Grab whatever spears and swords we you can get your hands on," Barthon said. There was only one thing he could think of doing. The only way they were going to survive the night was if Zephiris willed it, but he wasn't going to die without fighting. "Pry apart the looser boards along the palisade, and stab whatever you can reach. Make sure the runners let the other areas know."

"It will be done, Sir Camlin," Byron said. As Byron sped off into the darkness, Barthon made his way to the palisade. Several boards had been loosened, and he pried one off with his gauntleted hands. Whisps of Shadow seemed to spill through like water, the extremities of whatever was just beyond. Barthon thrust with his sword, over and over and over. It was a never-ending repetition, one he would weary of far before the sun rose. But he had no choice. Before long he was joined by other knights, some wielding spears or axes, most with swords. Squeals and roars could be heard beyond the wooden barrier, but they were soon lost beneath the battle cries of the knights who had finally found a way to vent their anger and frustration. They had finally found a way to fight for their ground.

Balance had been regained. Barthon finally stepped away from the palisade. His arm felt like a dead weight. He was surprised when he heard his sword clatter to the cobblestones of the street.

"Sir Camlin!" Byron said. "You need to rest. The wall will hold without you for a while." Barthon nodded, but before he thought about where he might find a spot to rest, he was moving over to a stationary squire.

"How many arrows do we have?" he asked the boy. The squire looked at him worriedly.

"I... I don't know, Sir Camlin..."

"Find out. I need to know how many arrows we have, and how much materials we have to make more."

"Yes, Sir Camlin," said the squire. He was running before he had even finished his salute.

"Why do you need to know how many arrows we have left?" Byron asked. "We can't use them from the rooftops without being picked off by the flying Shadows. And we barricaded all of the buildings, so we can't shoot from the windows either."

"Because I want to kill those flying beasts and regain the roofs."

"But what if they just come back?" Byron asked.

"Then at least we will know that we can't actually kill them."

All further conversation was cut off by the profound silence that had suddenly fallen on Caluk. The palisade was no longer shaking. Several knights were still thrusting with their weapons, but they soon realized that there was nothing left to attack. At least, they thought there was nothing there. It was far too dark to be sure.

"What happened?" asked Byron. "Did they... did they leave?"

"I don't know," said Barthon. "We need to get to the roof. Bring a torch." Barthon made his way back to the roof he had stationed himself on at the beginning of the battle. As he climbed his way to the top, he checked the horizon for any sign of light. He knew that dawn was hours off yet, but there was always the chance that he had miscalculated. Perhaps he was more tired than he believed. But it was as he thought. The horizon was dark; the only light came from the moons and the stars.

He arms and legs were on fire as he pulled himself up the ladder to the top of the building. Once he was standing on the building, he had to stop and catch his breath. He was not unused to figthing, but the mental stress of leading had taken its toll. He found he had a new respect for Lord Drake. Byron came up behind him with the light of two torches. Barthon thanked him and grabbed one, and then leaned over the edge of the roof with it. The light of the torch did not extend far enough to reach the ground, so he dropped the torch over the edge. As far as the light would show him, there were no Shadows.

"How can this be?" Barthon asked.

***

"We need to rest," Fabre said. Iaed was leaning against him, her head propped up by his shoulder. "We aren't used to each other yet, and... well, I've never produced magic quite like this before. Both of us are exhausted."

"Alright," Walter said. He could see that they were tired, but he could also see that there were still more Shadows out in the darkness, more of the larger creatures that had nearly overwhelmed their defenses. If not for the mage pair, they would like have been slaughtered. Just one of them took two or three knights to kill. He knew there would be more.

"Are you sure we shouldn't make for the mines?" Trimus asked. "I know its dangerous, but we might have a chance of holding out in there. If we stay out here, we will be overrun."

"Not yet, Trimus." Walter did not want to do that until they had no choice. "Another wave like that last one and we will. Just... not yet."

"Of course, Lord Drake," Trimus said.

Another wave was coming, and this time there was no magic to bolster their defense. Maybe he was wrong to keep his men out here in the open. But if they just waited a little longer... every second gained could save their lives in the end.

"Here they come! Be ready!" The next wave had reached the wall, at least a dozen of the large beasts. Almost twice the size of a man, with arms and legs like tree trunks, wielding weapons Walter could not quite make out because of the speed with which they were swung. Walter, Trimus and Inshull brought down the first, circling it to make the most of their numerical superiority. It was a tactic they had devised after the first assault. Walter had lost six knights that time. He was intent on not losing any more.

Two more replaced the first. Walter had to adjust their tactics. He waved away Trimus and Inshull so that the Shadows' attention would be diverted. If they could separate them enough, perhaps they could gang up on one at a time. That plan was ruined when a third joined the fray, and then a fourth. This battle was lost.

"Retreat!" Walter yelled as loud as he could. "Retreat to the mines!" He hadn't expected so many of them. He had miscalculated, and they would pay with their lives. Rather than run for the entrance to the mines himself, Walter launched an attack against the nearest of the giant Shadows. Barely dodging the swing of its massive weapon, Walter plunged his sword into its trunk-like leg. The beast roared, and then brought its own weapon down toward Walter. Suddenly Trimus was there, hanging from that massive arm and diverting its swing. The shadowy weapon struck the ground a foot from Walter, and Trimus rolled free. His armor clanked loudly against the hard ground as he rolled away from the Shadow.

Walter, Trimus and Inshull stood against the Shadows, prepared to lay down their lives to buy the others time to retreat. But before them the Shadows slowly disappeared, melting away as if taken by the wind. Even the light of the torches seemed drowned out by the blackness until all of the Shadow was gone. Walter blinked. It was as if he had just woken from a nightmare. But there were no glorious rays of sunlight shining onto the battlefield to dispel the Shadow. Even so, the Shadows were gone. In the middle of the battle, without any reason Walter could determine, the Shadows had abandoned the fight and left. The three Gedrich Knights stood there before the entrance of the mine, weapons held defensively before them, and stared perplexed at the emptiness before them.

Mandor > Caluk ~ Morning of DAY 18

The sun felt different that morning, as if its rays were not quite as powerful as we had been led to believe. The Shadows had been defeated, or had left willingly, but it was not by power of the light. Despite its natural warmth, the sun felt cold to me. Yet, somehow, I felt stronger.
-Sir Barthon Camlin, Righteous Knight of the Order of Gedrich


Simion watched intently as the column of knights and the people of Caluk filted through the gate in the western palisade. He tried not to let it show in his face, but emotions were raging through him like a storm. He knew that Barthon, at least, could sense it. None of the other knights were paying him much attention, but he could feel Barthon glancing at him, as if he were waiting for some sort of reaction from him. But how could Simion react? Was he supposed to jump for joy at the sight of the people of Caluk returning to their home? That was great, it really was, but he would hold on to his emotions until he found his family.

Lord Drake rode his horse straight to Barthon, who was standing with Simion, Sir Byron, and a few other knights just outside of the manor. Simion could not tell anything from Lord Drake's expression, but he didn't exactly look happy.

"Sir Camlin," Lord Drake said, saluting Barthon.

"Lord Drake," Barthon responded, returning the salute.

"I have good news, and I have bad news," Lord Drake said. "I'll start with the good news. As you can see, we've returned with some of the survivors of Caluk. Fortunately, I've brought more with me than we had to bury."

Simion's heart dropped. That any people had died was bad enough; there was a good chance that he knew them, or at least knew of them. But there was a chance still that his family was numbered among the dead.

"That is good news, Lord Drake, though it could be better. I am still glad to hear it. What of the bad news?"

"The bad news is that the Shadows abandoned the fight in the middle of the night."


"The same thing happened here," Simion said. He was getting impatient. He wanted to know if his family was alright, so he forgot to guard his tongue. "How is that bad news?"

"Because," Barthon said, filling in for Lord Drake, "that means there is still something we don't know about them. They have never abandoned a fight before, not until the sun banished them. We need to find out why they left last night. If we can, then perhaps we can use it against them."

"So then it is bad and good news..." Simion said. He didn't quite understand how it was bad, really.

"Potentially good news," said Lord Drake. "It is never good to have gaps in your knowledge of your enemy. This is certainly a gap in our knowledge. But you are right, Sir Camlin. We need to figure out why, and if it can be used against them in the future."

"How many surivivors were there," Barthon asked. Simion knew why he had asked: because Simion would not. He could not ask.

"Less than a quarter of the town, unfortunately," Lord Drake said. He looked at Simion for a moment, then returned his gaze to Barthon. "As I said, there were dead among the living. We buried them this morning... including six knights. But I think most of them fled to nearby towns. The Altus family left for Roccham a few days ago."

Simion's heart leapt in his chest. Roccham? Why go to Roccham over Aram? It didn't matter... his family was probably safe there. That town was nothing compared to the safet of Aram, but it certainly beat Caluk.

"Roccham?" Barthon asked. "You are sure?" Lord Drake nodded assuredly. "That is where Simion and I were headed anyway. That is lucky."

"Yes, it is, though we still don't know that any made it there alive." Lord Drakes words echoed the thoughts in Simion's head.

"Iaed and Fabre, where are there?" Barthon asked. "Did they survive?"

"Yes, yes," Lord Drake said. "They are resting at the moment. Apparently they were casting stronger spells than they were used to. That, mixed with the fact that they are not used to working together, they were both left rather... immobile. They slept most of the trip back on the back of a horse."

"How we pulled through last night as well as we did, I have no idea. But I take it as a blessing from Zephiris. We have done good work here, Lord Drake. We have fought back against the Shadows and we won, though in no small part due to luck. Lets take advantage of the reprieve and prepare for the tonight."

"I agree," Lord Drake said. The rest of the knights dispersed to help with the expanding the palisade, but Simion remained with the two commanding knights. "Barthon, when are you and Simion leaving for Iyel'Del? We could use you here, but I understand why you have to go."

"Tomorrow if we can," Barthon said. "I can't leave until I know Caluk can hold its own against another attack, but I don't want to wait any longer than tomorrow. And we will need to leave early enought to get to Roccham before nightfall."

Simion wanted to go immediately, but he knew why Barthon could not go. He had been put in charge of everyone here, even the Caluk survivors. Barthon could not leave until he knew they would be ok without him. Simion knew that was one of the qualities of a leader, but it seemed beyond his own capabilities. He knew it had to be hard to put the needs of others above your own wants. Barthon certainly wanted to find Zephiris before anyone else did. Simion wanted to find his family just as bad. But the lives of these people were dependant upon the decisions Barthon made. Simion did not envy him.

"Then we will have it ready," Lord Drake said. The Lord Knight rode his horse closer to Barthon, and then held it out. "It is good to see you today, Barthon. That was a rough night for all of us. Your father would be proud of you. I'm proud of you."

Barthon shook Lord Drake's hand, but there was a sad smile on his face. Barthon's was a face that Simion could read. And he could see now that Barthon was missing his father, as much, if not more, than Simion missed his own. Simion's heart ached for him. As small as a chance as it was, at least there was a chance that Simion would find his father and the rest of his family. Barthon had lost that chance a long time ago.

"Thank you," Barthon said. "That means more to me than you know."

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Re: Sephiris: The Price of Peace

Post by Guest on Thu Dec 18, 2014 1:18 am

Mandor > Caluk ~ Late Noon of DAY 18
Simion's eyes felt swollen when he woke up. He rubbed the crusty remnants of tears from his eyes, while trying to shield them from rays of the late noon sun that happened to be streaming through his window. Dreams from sleep quickly faded from his mind, but strong feelings remained. Feeling of loss and pain. He knew that he had dreamed of his parents, and his sister, but he could not remember any details. Most of his dreams tended to fade away as soon as he woke up from sleep. This one was no different.
He was surprised to see a familiar face on the chair across from his bed, right next to the door leading out into the hall: Quentin Osmont, the priest Barthon had recruited from Dor. Or, actually, Quentin belonged to the group that had recruited him and Barthon. Simion smiled as he sat up, even the lingering feelings of his forgotten dream now completely dispelled.
"Quentin!" the boy said excitedly. "When did you get here? I thought you were staying in Aram?"
"It is certainly good to see you, Simion," the priest said, a toothy grin on his own face. "I had intended to stay in Aram to help with the refugees. But I was deterred from that goal when Brenard and the others returned."
"Returned from where?" Simion asked. When they had gone back to The Green Twig, in Aram, the others had disappeared. There was no note explaining where they had gone, no message with the inkeeper. They had just... disappeared.
"When they arrived at The Green Twig," Quentin began, readjusting himself in the chair to get more comfortable as he launched into his explanation, "Brenard found it under new management. The previous owner had never returned from the city of Iyel'Del. With no accomodations, they had to look for shelter elsewhere. As it turned out, Barthon was the glue that held the group together, at least after Jasper's death, may She cradle his soul. With no official rendezvous, the group just split apart. Each had their own idea of where to go, and no plans were made of meeting up again. I think, in a way, most of them were relieved of no longer being under Barthon's scrutiny. He had become a friend to them, to be sure, but he is still a man of the law. And... well, you know that some of the others are not."
"Barthon never held that against them," Simion argued. "He was very kind to them."
"I know he was, Simion. And the others knew it too. Yet, when you live a life in the shadows of the law, opportunities for escape are not taken lightly. 'Old habits die hard,' as the saying goes. But, as Brenard tells it, they felt a pulling that night in their dreams. Though they thought they were free, they were not. I, too, felt the pulling that night. I could not describe to you what exactly it was I felt. I cannot even remember the dreams that I had. But I can clearly remember seeing your face upon the moment that I awoke. Not as if you were there, mind you. But it was in my mind's eye. Like looking at the sun for too long and seeing its silhoutte even when you close your eyes. Inen and Ten won't admit it, of course, and the dragon does not speak, but they all returned to The Green Twig before long."
"So... that means that they are coming with us? To Sephalia?" Simion was excited for the prospect. He may or may not ever find his family; the chances of that were certainly low. Barthon and their friends were the closest family he would ever have now.
"Is that where you are going?" Quentin asked, surprise showing on his face. "Barthon was too busy with the defenses to say more than a few words to me, though I could tell he was glad to see me. He had seemed determined that She was here though." He looked at Simion sharply, eyes slightly squinted. "Was it the Dreams, Simion? Did She speak to you?"
Simion shrugged his shoulders. He had no real idea what the dreams were. He had been certain of them at the time, but as the days passed...
"I don't know," was all he said.
"Well, you seem to have convinced Barthon. He has high hopes for you. We all do." Quentin said it with a smile on his face, but it felt like heavy weights on Simion's shoulders. It seemed that everyone he knew was turning to him for answers, like he was a map that would guide them to the greatest treasure in the world. He had been excited by the prospect before. But coming home... finding that his family was not where he had hoped... it had drained the excitement from him. When he went to sleep earlier that morning, all he had felt was dread.
Seeming to sense the boy's mood, Quentin cleared his throat and stood up from the chair. "Well, I'll let you get dressed and get something to eat. When you are ready, the others are out in the courtyard getting suited up. I am sure they would be delighted to see you." With another warming smile, Quentin stepped out of the room and shut the door behind him.
Simion stared out of the window at the sinking sun. He had slept the day away. It seemed to become a pattern: sleep during the day, and live through the nightmares at night. He missed the long days of working in Aram, and the deep, comfortable sleep he always found at the end. He was always exhausted now, but he could never fall asleep very easily.
Finally, Simion slipped out of the bed. It had been far more comfortable than any bed he had used in Aram, and even more so considering all of the nights he had spent out in the wilderness since the search began. Simion did not think Quentin had noticed the outfit that the Duke of Aram had tailored for him; when he had taken it off earlier, he had left it in a heap on a chair. It was slightly wrinkled now, but he still felt embarrassed putting it on. What would the others think when they saw him in it? Did he look like a little Lordling, or a dressed up character during a feast day?
Smoothing out the wrinkles as he walked, Simion made his way through the hall outside of the room to the main entrance of the mayor's manor. The mayor himself had not been found among the living survivors in the mines, so the Order had continued to use it as its headquarters. Simion idly wondered who would step into that role as he followed his nose to the source of the food. Tables were set up near the door leading out to the courtyard, all of them filled with food. Some of it, he knew, had been gathered throughout the day in the fields outside of Caluk. Some of it was the supplies that the Order had brought with them.
Simion contented himself with some bread and cheese, though he slipped an apple in his pocket. With his mouth full, he made his way out of the manor and into the courtyard. The sun, just hitting the peaks of the Blue Mountains and wreathed in clouds the shade of fire, made the stones of the courtyard almost appear pink themselves. Simion could feel the cold wind of the coming night on his neck and hands and ears. Their was conversation all around him: knights giving orders, or recounting the battles of the night before. Surivors of Caluk discussing their losses and the plans for the future. He had spoken with some of them before he went in search of a bed. Many were glad to see him, but he could not bear to look at the pity in their eyes any longer.
His heart lurched as he caught sight of Ten Eych and Inen, each of them fitting into heavy pieces of armor donated by the Order. Not their blue armor, of course. These were plain steel plates, pieces salvaged over time and brought as reserves. Inen seemed to be having trouble filling hers, and Ten had similar trouble in finding pieces that covered him enough. He could see more skin along his arms than he knew the armor was designed to allow. Ten smiled as he caught sight of the boy.
"By the Mother of our souls, look at you!" the large man bellowed. Inen smiled at him as well, but she remained quiet, her arms crossed at her breasts.
"Its good to see both of you," Simion said delightedly. "I was sad when you weren't at The Green Twig."
Ten's smile was replaced with a guilty cringe. "Yeah... about that..."
"And we were sad to see what a mistake we had made," Inen said, uncrossing her arms and grasping Simion in a hug. "I did miss you; we all did." Simion returned the hug whole-heartedly. For some reason, he found himself thrilled by the smell of the leather and steel she wore.
"Are you guys going to help in the fight tonight?" Simion asked after Inen released him from her hug.
"In this stuff?" Ten said disgustedly as he pointed at the armor barely covering him. Simion liked the way the blue tattoos on his face seemed to form different patterns based on his facial expressions. It made him seem more... animated. "I'd rather be naked. But yeah, we will be hiding behind these flimsly walls with everyone else, ready to die in this man-made trap the moment they break through."
"That is why we won't let them through," said familiar voice. Simion turned to see Brenard coming up behind them. Z'ang, the hornless dragon, stood off behind the scarred fencer with his arms crossed, though he, too, smiled at Simion.
"Brenard! I'm glad you all came back." He rushed forward and gave Brenard a hug as well. The despair he had felt earlier seemed to be gone. He had family again, even if it wasn't the one he had come here looking for.
"So am I," Brenard said. "So am I."
Simion saw that Brenard still wore his funny hat, even with the armor covering his arms and torso. He only wore leather though, none of the steel. Simion remembered that Brenard liked to be able to move fast. Heavy steel would have slowed him down too much.
Now that they had all said their hellos, an uncomfortable silence settled over them. Simion knew why: Quentin had told him that they were all pulled here because of him. It was on all of their minds, now that they saw him again. But no one was going to say it. Simion wasn't sure if he could talk about it.
"So," Brenard said, breaking the silence, "a true Knight of Zephiris." He was looking at Simion's outfit. He could feel his cheeks color. He hoped the color of his cheeks was hidden by the already pink light of the sunset.
"Duke Nuriam had it made for me," he explained. "Barthon made me ask him for mages to get to Sephalia, and then he requested some new clothes for me."
"He made you ask for mages, and he only asked for clothes?" Ten asked. "I thought the knight had more stones than that."
"He said it was my mission, so the request should come from me."
"A wise decision," Brenard said. "If nothing else, he would be more willing to humor you than an older night. Either way, mages are not lightly given. Did he really give you any?"
"Yeah, though they weren't anyone that he didn't regret losing. At least, that's what Barthon told me. They are a new pair, Iaed and Fabre. They've never trained together before."
"I suppose that explains it," said Brenard, nodding slowly. "But you are still honored by the gift."
"Are we really going to Sephalia?" Inen asked. She looked sort of sad, almost resigned. Simion wondered if she really did want to be here.
"Yes," he responded. "I can't say where Zephiris is... but she is not here. Not in Mandor."
Their discussion was interrupted as Z'ang stepped forward, holding a piece of paper out to Simion. The boy took it, trying his best to decipher the dragon's odd handwriting.
"Young Simion,
Thou art far more honorable a knight than any I faced in the passes of the Blue Mountains. You are young yet. You have not even taken your first life. But I pledge Z'gen-Ghide to keep you safe, on my honor. On my life."

When Simion looked up from the letter, Z'ang was kneeling in front of him, with his enormous sword held aloft in the upraised palms of his hands. Simion's breath caught in his throat. He hardly knew the dragon, and wasn't even sure if he was trustworthy. But now the dragon had pledged to protect him with his life.
Brenard chuckled as he watched Z'ang. "I don't need to see what he wrote to know what he is doing." The fencer took a step forward to stand beside Z'ang. "You are the most unlikely of men to be summoned by Zephiris... but I suppose it is your innocence that will help you find your way to Her." Brenard, too, drew his sword and kneeled before Simion, holding it in the same manner as Z'ang. He heard the sound of a sword behind drawn behind him as well, and he turned to see Ten Eych holding his out at arm's length, point aimed at Simion's heart.
"The Mother of our souls calls to all men's hearts," Ten said quietly. "But you were chosen to lead men to her. And I was chosen to protect you." Ten smiled softly, and then kneeled as well. Simion knew his cheeks were brighter than the clouds of the sun, which was now hidden by the tall peaks of the Blue Mountains.
Inen's arms were crossed again, and she was staring intently at Simion. She did not move for several long moments. She looked as if she were deep in thought. Simion thought she might turn away from all of them in disgust, but at last she nodded her head.
"Zephiris coming back to the world will change everyone's lives," she said. "For better or worse." She drew her shortsword from her belt, and then stepped closer to Simion. "Meeting you set me on a path I can't veer from. The dreams I've been having prove that. It was never something I would have chosen for myself, but it has been chosen for me." She looked around at the other kneeling forms, as if embarrassed by the words that had escaped from her. Then she quickly kneeled and held out her own sword. "By what little honor I have left to me, I swear to protect you."
Simion was dumbstruck. Out of everything he had prepared himself for, nothing like this had ever occured to him. These were his friends, adults that were beyond his peer. They were mentors and grudging guardians, people he followed because Barthon led them all. And now they had pledged their lives to him. Not to Barthon; to him. He looked over their backs at the knights surrounding them in the courtyard. They were all staring at him... boy in the center of a circle of kneeling forms. A boy wearing the garb of a Knight of Zephiris. Just a ten year old boy.
It was Barthon that made his heart feel like it had been pierced with a dagger. Or struck by a hot iron. He wasn't sure... he had never felt the like before. He stood there staring, first at their friends kneeling at their feet, and then at him, standing there like a thief caught in the act. Barthon said nothing, but he gave Simion that knowing look. And then he, too, drew his sword and knelt.
With tears of shame in his eyes, Simion turned and ran.
***
"I suppose it was a bit much for the boy," Ten Eych said. They were all sitting on barrels or crates in the courtyard, waiting for the darkness to bring their enemy to them. And reflecting on what just happened. They had all admitted that they had no real idea what they were doing at the time. It just... happened. Yet Inen seemed to have lost the resigned look in her eyes.
"He will come to terms with it in time," Barthon said. He held his sword in his hand, spinning it as he read the inscriptions that covered the hilt and blade. Barthon had already come to terms with his role. He was too old for the kind of glory that Simion was destined for. But perhaps the boy was still too young for it.
Z'ang nudged Brenard and handed him a small note. Brenard rolled his eyes as he took it. But he nodded as he finished reading it.
"Our mute friend here has a point. What if Simion is not the first to find Zephiris? There are others searching for her, all across Telmural I'd imagine. We have prepped him for this; what if he only meets failure at the end?"
"Zephiris has something planned for the young man," Quentin said. He had arrived shortly after Simion had run off. The priest had not chastised them for their actions, but he had not praised them for it either. In fact, Barthon thought sourly, the priest had not really said anything about it at all.
"Whether he is intended to be the one who finds Her, or whether, as a Knight of Zephiris, he is destined to carry out Her will, Simion is tied to Zephiris stronger than any of us."
"I'm surprised at you, Inen," Brenard said. "What possessed you to pledge yourself to him? I'd never taken you for a selfless woman." Barthon detected no sarcasm in the scarred fencer's voice. Though he usually had something lighthearted or humurous to add to a conversation, he was serious now.
"We all had the dream, Brenard," she said.
"Ahhh, yes. The one you wouldn't admit to until a few minutes ago." Brenard was smiling now. Inen was glaring at him, pulling a cloak Quentin had brought tighter over her shoulders. It was getting cold, Barthon realized. And darker. Dark enough for the Shadows to be out. Yet the lookouts had not shouted the warning. Barthon stood up, suddenly restless.
"Where are they?" Barthon asked quietly. Z'ang stood up as well.
"Maybe they aren't coming?" Ten Eych said. The burly man stretched his arms and yawned. "We had a long ride here, and I for one did not get much sleep last night. So wake me when the party gets interesting." With that, Ten stood and walked off to the manor.
"You should all get some sleep," Barthon said. "We managed to hold them off last night, and our defenses are better now. Most of us have slept at some point today. You will need your energy tomorrow, if you want to continue to travel with us."
The group nodded and murmured their assent, and then walked off toward the manor. Except the dragon.
"Are you not tired, Z'ang?" Barthon asked. It had taken him a while to remember the dragons name when the group had arrived in Caluk. He'd had to nudge Quentin quietly for a reminder. The dragon shook his head and patted the pommel of his sword. Barthon sighed and nodded. He had nothing against Z'ang, really. But he found it very uncomfortable being alone around the mute dragon. "Then we should head up to one of the lookout posts to offer our help."
The night passed slowly atop the building at the edge of the southern palisade. Barthon found himself nodding to sleep as they waited. There was no movement in the darkness of the outskirts of Caluk, or the fields beyond. At first he had been full of adrenaline, expecting the rush of Shadows at any moment. But the adrenaline was fading. This was the first peaceful night they'd had in weeks, and he found himself wishing for a warm bed. The cold wind seemed to seep through any crevice of his armor, and a fire would only ruin his night-eyes.
"Do you think its over, then?" one of the lookouts asked. "They stopped their attack early last night, and now they don't show up at all. Is it finally over?"
"It is too early to tell," Barthon said. He wanted to believe that it was, but he could not imagine how it could be, or why it would be. Maybe something had happened across the sea, in Sephalia. Simion insisted that was where Zephiris would be found. Perhaps She already had been found? If that were the case, what was in store for Simion?
"Well, then, I don't know what's worse... waiting for these creatures or seeing them run at me."
Barthon chuckled, though he wasn't sure why. Perhaps his nerves were getting to him. Z'ang was sharpening his sword somewhere behind him. He had been for the past hour, it seemed like. He thought that sound was getting to his nerves too. With a last chuckle, Barthon closed his eyes and drifted to sleep.
Mandor > Caluk ~ Morning of DAY 19
Though Barthon had strictly prohibited open celebration, smiles could be seen on almost every face in the town of Caluk that morning. The night before, the Shadows had ceased their attack early. And then last night, they had not appeared at all. Most believed that the attacks were over. Barthon did not. He couldn't explain why he felt that way; he just did.
"You need to keep them prepared, Lord Drake," Barthon said as he led his horse up to the eastern palisade gate. All of the others accompanying him and Simion were behind, leading their own horses: the mage pair, and the group he had originally joined with in Dor. Walter had insisted on sending a few knights with Barthon as escort, but Barthon had insisted that his group as it was could protect themselves adequately enough.
"This is not over yet."
"I believe you, Barthon." Walter said. "I don't understand what is going on any more than the rest of the men, but I'll take your word for it. I would not completely let my guard down tonight either way. Two weeks of constant fighting every night is far too much for a single nights' rest to erase. I'll keep them prepared, and ready for anything."
Barthon nodded, and then looked back at the assembled group. Quentin was speaking quietly to Simion, probably about what had happened last night. Inen and Ten were riding near each other as usual. They had formed a strong bond after Jasper's death; they were now nearly inseperable. Brenard and Z'ang rode close to each other as well, though mostly because they were the two social outcasts of the group. Beyond all of them rode Iaed and Fabre. They seemed the most uncomfortable with the situation, and Barthon could not blame them. The rest were all long-time friends, relatively speaking.
"If I find an able and willing man, I'll send word back on the situation in Rochham. I'm hoping its not completely deserted, or destroyed, since it sits on the banks of the river. I would hope that offers them some protection."
"I wouldn't count on it," Walter said. "From what I've seen of these Shadows, they are unpredictable in every way. For all we know, the tactics and rules they use here could be completely different elsewhere."
"That is a good point." Barthon looked at the sun, rising over the forests of central Mandor. It was passed time for them to get moving. "Take care, Lord Drake," Barthon said.
"And you," Walter responded. Then the Lord Knight turned back to Caluk to return to his duties. Silently, the group traveled through the palisade gate and the abandoned outskirts of Caluk. Everywhere he could see signs of neglect, destruction, and the mage-pair's handywork. More wood had been needed than Barthon had originally thought, and the houses were certainly closer than the forests. Not to mention easier to put to their purposes. It would be put right eventually. The Order of Gedrich would see to it.
They traveled with very little conversation between them. The thick woods of central Mandor began less than a hundred feet out from the easternmost farmhouse on the outskirt of Caluk. Every hundred feet after, the forest seemed to get thicker. The road was well-maintained though, partly by Gedrich Knights and partly by the Duke Nuriam's soldiers. All roads leading to Caluk were heavily traveled, and important to maintain. But Barthon could already see signs of neglect here as well. No one cared to maintain the roads when cities and towns were besieged by night.
They crossed a few swollen streams as they traveled the road eastward. All of the northern streams descending from the Blue Mountains fed into the Manora River. Not nearly as wild or rough as the River Swift to the south, the Manora River was the economic life-line of Mandor. It's smooth, wide waters were always filled with trade ships. At least, it used to be. He was hoping they would still find something docked in Rochham.
"Is that true, Barthon?" Simion yelled from behind. He turned around in his saddle to see Simion riding between Ten and Inen; the woman had a mischevious look on her face.
"Is what true?" Barthon asked, slowing his horse down so that they could speak without yelling across the distance.
"Do they really have slave houses in Iyel'Del? Great buildings where people work day and night to make things for sale in Sephalia? I thought slavery was illegal."
Barthon laughed out loud; a deep bellow that felt quite refreshing after the things they had been through. Maybe he was wrong about last night... or maybe one night of rest really had made him soft.
"There are no slaves in Iyel'Del," Barthon said. "Or anywhere in Sephalia. I'm sure what Inen meant to say is that those are the Iyel'Del factories. It is true that men and women work day and night there, but not without adequate pay. And they work in shifts. The factories are no different than any business, Simion, other than its size and profits."
Inen sniffed in obvious disagreement.
"I thought you'd have more respect for the factories, Inen," Barthon said. "If I recall correctly, you were always drawn to the shadier areas of Dor."
"No, actually, I was drawn to the lawless areas, seeing as how the law permits those 'slave houses' in Iyel'Del. But why wouldn't they? As you said, it brings in a lot of money."
"The last I saw," Quentin pitched in, "those workers were quite well cared for, and enjoy their jobs. There is even a chapel nearby."
"Nothing like a bit of spiritual healing to mend physical exhaustion and empty bellies. I've seen the factories, and the shacks on the other side of the canal. If I recall right, those aren't properly called 'houses.'"
"There is no need to be rude, Inen," Ten Eych said. Inen turned to glare at him, but then her eyes softened.
"I apologize Quentin... and the rest of you. I did not mean to offend."
"Differences of opinion abound in the lands of the king," Quentin said appeasingly. "It is because of his generosity that you are allowed to speak of them while keeping your head. From what I've heard, you do not have that luxury in the lands of the dragons. Volatile beasts..."
The grouped looked back at Z'ang, riding at the far back. A light red flush filled Quentin's cheeks. The dragon simply shrugged his shoulders. Barthon hoped that meant that he wasn't offended.
Mandor > Rochham countryside ~ Night of DAY 19
Barthon ran as fast as he could, doing his best to jump over the lumpy rocks and gnarled roots that he couldn't even see. Once, he had not lifted his leg up high enough and the bottom of his boot clipped a rock. He had almost dropped Simion. He could feel the boy's blood running down his arm, where it had seeped in through the gaps in his armor. He knew he was almost out of time; Simion had already lost a lot of blood. But Barthon did not have a choice. He could not stop running, could not give up hope. He just had to get to Rochham. There would be help there.
"Hold on!" he yelled at the boy's limp form. His arms were burning from trying to hold the weight without jostling him too much. Don't die on me...
Darkness had descended in full; the moonlight alone showed him his path through the thick trees. An explosion somewhere in the woods behind him told him that Iaed and Fabre, at least, were still alive.
Lights ahead of him. At least, he thought those were lights. Whatever angle he had seen them from, it was now cut off by trees. He veered to the right, trying to get around a thick knot of trees without losing his pace. There they were again, those lights. It was Rochham; Barthon was seeing torches along the wooden wall of Rochham. He sped up, hoping for the safety of those walls... yet dreading what he knew he was going to have to get through first. No doubt those walls were thick with Shadows. There had to be some way through them, though.
The sound of hooves racing toward him from behind made him run quicker. Was it Shadows? Did they make those kind of noises? In his near-hysteria, he couldn't quite remember. All he knew was that he had to get Simion on the other side of those walls. He was convinced that the world depended on it. Barthon's world, at the very least.
An arrow flew past his head, striking a black form that had just coalesced in front of him. Dark motes were blown away in the wind as the form fell apart. Inen rode past him on her horse, already knocking another arrow. As Barthon cleared the last of the trees, he saw that everything was as he feared. A thick mass of Shadows lined the wall of the river town. Inen loosed her arrow, but Barthon could not isolate the target of that arrow, there were so many packed together. Barthon thought it almost looked like a cloud of heavy, dark smoke trying to ring the entire town as if it might starve it of light and oxygen.
"I need a path!" Barthon yelled. He did not know if Inen could hear him or not, but perhaps someone could. When he had started out, Simion had clung to him desperately, in pain. Now the boy simply hung limp in his arms. He was still bleeding heavily from his side, and a deep gash ran across the right side of his face. He would not lose hope yet, not when he was so close. "I need a path!" the knight repeated.
A huge form dropped in front of him from the sky. At first Barthon feared it was a Shadow, but when the wings spread out, and Z'gen-Ghide was pulled free, Barthon knew it for Z'ang Than Gadan, The Mountain, delivering Grave News to his enemies. Z'ang had revealed much of himself earlier that day, and Barthon discovered just how appropriate the nickname was. It brought flashes of memory of their duel in the Blue Mountains as he watched the dragon cut a path through the Shadows to the gate of Rochham. Barthon stayed close behind Z'ang, yet far enough away not to risk getting cleaved by Z'gen-Ghide, Grave News, the massive greatsword the dragon wielded with ease.
Inen sped by again, shooting threw more arrows in the time it took her to enter his helmet's field of vision and leave it again. Not far behind her was Quentin, though he stopped short as he neared Barthon and Z'ang.
"Be ready to open the gates!" Quentin yelled through cupped hands. There were two armored men standing on the wall to either side of the gate, though neither were participating in the battle. "We have an injured boy!" The priest yelled. The two men did not look as if they had even heard Quentin. Barthon would get in one way or another, even if he needed Z'ang to break the gates down. Approaching Shadows forced Quentin to back the horse away, though he seemed reluctant to do so. The priest cast quick glances at Simion, sympathy and guilt wracking his face.
There was a tremendous roar from behind, and he half turned to see Ten Eych running out from the tree line, sword raised above his head and fury painted on his blue-tattooed face. Blood stained the mountain man, and Barthon had feared him dead from the initial attack. Ten joined Z'ang in the push to the gates, and their progress seemed to increase drastically. The Shadows were overwhelming, yet Z'ang and Ten managed to keep them at bay with their ferocity. They were both bleeding from numerous wounds, but Barthon believed they might actually make it to the gates.
"Give me the boy," Quentin said from his horse. Barthon had not noticed that the old priest had gotten that close. He was holding his arms out to Barthon to bring the injured Simion up to his horse.
"No!" Barthon yelled. He could not; Simion was his responsibility, and he would see it through to the end. He knew that if he handed him off to someone else, he would never forgive himself. It would feel too much like transfering blame.
"You damn stubborn fool!" Quentin yelled. He dropped down from his horse and strode up to Barthon. Stunned by the priest's language, he half expected Quentin to rip Simion from his arms. Instead, more surprisingly, the priest drew Barthon's arming sword from its scabbard and turned to face the Shadows that were closing in behind them, cutting off their escape as they cut their way to the wall.
The priest swung the sword with passion more than skill, yelling at the top of his lungs. At first, Barthon thought it was just a wordless cry. Shadows turned to motes as they neared him, and Quentin's words came out clearer and louder as he grew conviction.
"The duty of the righteous is by word..." the priest yelled, cutting wildly at the approaching Shadows. "And deed..." The Shadows seemed intent on him now, the only obstacle blocking them from finishing off this meager resistance. "Through pen or sword..." The priest was forced to back up as a wolf-Shadow got passed his wild swinging, swiping its ghostly claws at Quentin's legs. Barthon could hear the cloth of his breeches rip, as well as the skin of his leg, but Quentin was unperturbed. The priest thrust the sword point down into the wolf-Shadow's head, causing it to disperse as if it had never been. "To uphold that which righteous is!"
A man-Shadow rushed in, slicing at Quentin with what looked like nothing more than a flash of pure darkness. It was hard to tell with only distant torches to go by, but the result was clear. Quentin's left arm fell free of his body, spurting thick blood. The priest turned toward this new attacker, and stabbed with Barthon's sword. "Even as a burning lamp, whose flame is needed to for its purpose to be shone..." the priest staggered momentarily, using the tip of the sword to prop himself up. The Shadows started to surge inward again. "So also the righteous, though he is a flame to the wayward..." The priest continued his one-armed swinging, to much less effect than before with his missing arm and damaged leg. "Should not neglect to be a light to the faithful!"
To Barthon's eyes, Quentin's form seemed to morph into Brenard. There was suddenly a taller, two-armed man now fending off the Shadows with much more skill. The priest, Barthon now realized, lay on the ground clutching the stump of his severed arm.
"Barthon!" The knight turned to see Z'ang and Ten much farther away, nearly to the gate. Safety lay within that gate, and his friends were still behind him, throwing away their lives to see him to that safety. He had no choice. Barthon ran to Ten and Z'ang. In moments, they had reached the solid wood of the wall's gate. Both dragon and mountain man pounded on the wood, but there was no response. One armored man poked his head over the wall, and then disappeared.
"Coward!" Ten yelled up at him. "Open this gate!" Barthon felt the wind pick up suddenly, and he struggled to keep his feet. He had somehow forgotten about the weight in his arms, but his legs were starting to lose their solidity. The wind felt much stronger than he knew it must be. The logs of the gate shook against the wind, and dirt and debris from the woods flew into Barthon and the others. Unable to shield his face, he could only look away. The wind increased drastically; Barthon could hear and feel the debris bouncing off of his armor. Then he heard a loud splintering, a sound like ten trees being felled at once. The wind ceased, and when he turned back the gate was a shattered ruin. Iaed and Fabre. Two more of his friends he could do nothing for, though they were giving up everything for the boy in his arms.
Barthon ran through what had seconds ago been a solid gate. The town beyond lay in darkness. No lamps lit the windows of the buildings here, nor torches in the streets. Where could he go? Who here could help Simion? A bright light made him reflexively close his eyes. It was he had looked directly at a flash of lightning, yet there were no clouds in the sky. He looked back at the gate and saw Ten and Z'ang running through. Behind him was Brenard carrying the limp form of Quentin, the priest's remaining arm flung over the fencer's shoulders to hold his weight. Inen rode in behind them on her horse. She raised her bow as she came through the gate, and Barthon turned as she loosed the arrow. One of the armored men, who was fleeing to somewhere within the darknened town, fell to the ground with a shaft sprouting from his back. He turned back to Inen in shock and anger, but the fury on her face reminded him of what those men had just put them through. If they had only opened the gates...
Iaed and Fabre were the last through, and the Shadows were close on their heels. "Run!" the mage pair screamed together, as if it were a spell that would get them all moving. It might as well have been. Barthon turned and ran, still unsure of where he was going. He was now on the other side of Rochham's walls, but there was no safety here. He ran down the central street of the town, not aware of the dark buildings around him, his friends behind him, or the Shadows even further behind. He had glimpsed another light.
It was a ship, and it was still docked. Safety at last. It had to be. There was no other hope. The street curved toward the ship at its mooring. Barthon could see more buildings on the other side of the wide river, but that wasn't important to him. The ship might as well have been the only place left in the world. It had to offer shelter. The ramp was still down, he was glad to see. He thought he even saw a few people on its decks. He thundered up the ramp as soon as he reached it, the pounding of his heavy boots reverberating through the plank and causing it to sway slightly. But the knight did not hesitate. Only when he reached the deck did he stop, panting heavily and finally feeling ready to collapse. But he could not.
"Help..." he said. It was all he had the energy to say. The men on the deck, some of them wearing the loose garb of sailors, others wearing the clothing of common citizens or merchants, stared at him in stunned silence. Barthon dropped to his knees as he eyed one man in particular: he was wearing a green and brown robe, and his head was shaved bald. On the breast of his robe was a white hand. This man was a Toad.

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