The City-State of Tarna. South of the searing deserts of Shapier and Raseir - north of the Endless Sea. Friccana lay to the west, beyond impassable (or so your common street vender would tell you) mountains - and to the east lay the lands of the Simbani Tribe and the ancient rainforest. There was magic in this country, but then again - there was magic in every country on Gloriannia.
This is the tale of a cubling liontaur; Rakeesh Sah Tarna was not born a King, or even a Prince. He was born into the Warrior-Cast (as was his father before him) and his mother was a great Seer. It is said that the cat has an insatiable curiosity, and this was certainly true with the young cub in this story.
In this particular story, the young liontaur (truly only six years old) had followed his father out from the gate-wall of the city. Rakeesh was clever and it was not difficult for him to slip past the complacent guardsmen. He was excited, for it would be his first time leaving the city and traveling into the Savannah. If he would have looked back as he pounced his way towards his father, his four small legs pushing carrying him energetically through the dryland, he would have seen The Great Temple of Sekhmet - and perhaps he would have even seen the statue of the God smile at the cub. He would go on to do great things and to become a great leader in his homeland.
In this story, however, Rakeesh was not able to catch up with his father in the Savannah. The older liontaur was a fierce hunter, and it was not long before the cub was alone, his father not even a shape on the horizon. Tired, lost, and scared - Rakeesh sought shelter from his frustrations at a nearby formation of large rocks. To the youngling, the formation looked like a mountain; the truth was, however, that these rocks had been placed there by the Simbani Tribe, to help guide the humans and liontaurs who moved between the two countries as they sought trade, shelter, and sometimes even Exile itself.
With sweat dampening the liontaur's short mane, Rakeesh fell to the cracked earth once he reached the shadow of the Great Rocks. He wept out of fear; fear of being lost, fear of disobeying his Father (he would be reprimanded harshly, he knew it!), fear of never seeing his Mother again. It was while he was crying and further dampening his fur that he saw the most amazing piece of fruit that he had ever seen in his whole life! It seemed to change colors as he watched it, and it throbbed with a life of its own. Suddenly, Rakeesh felt hungry – so, so very hungry – and the only thing that would slay the cub's hunger (and curiosity) was a taste of the large, magical fruit.
And so young Rakeesh began to climb the twelve or so feet up the rock wall. When he could climb no further, when the wall became too steep, the liontaur reached, his small hand stretching hard to claim the treasure that had been found. Rakeesh imagined what it would be like to have rubber arms – to be able to stretch and stretch and stretch forever. Despite himself, the cub was laughing between the groans from failed grasps.
However, the lure of the fruit had caused the naïve liontaur to ignore caution and safety. Had he noticed the many holes in the rock wall, perhaps he would not have been so hasty to fight his way up it. It was while he stretched and groaned and giggled that another creature set its eyes on the fruit's promised prize. A young bat flew down from shadows created by the sharp and curving formation of the high rocks. It swooped down quickly, landing directly on the fruit that was just beyond Rakeesh's reach.
“No! It's mine!”, cried the child as he grabbed wildly, tossing himself off of the rock wall on accident. Several oomps and ouches later, the cub had bounced down the wall, short-falling to the Savannah ground. It was then that tentacle-like vines shot out of holes on the rock wall; each vine had many teeth-like thorns running up-and-down it, and their target was unmistakable. The vibes latched onto and wrapped themselves around the young bat, and there was a monstrous growl within the rocks, celebrating as the creature's bait had been taken.
Rakeesh panicked. He could not let such a young creature be eaten by a monster! It would be bad Karma! Rakeesh did not pause to think as he crouched low, grabbing a large stone. He had played throwing-stones with the other cublings before, and he could not claim any great skill at it in those games. However, as the would-be Hero swung his arm to throw the stone, his aim was as true as the Heart of a Child. The rock smashed into the color-changing fruit, miraculously missing the bat itself (that would have been an ill-fated rescue attempt). There was another hideous growl from within the rocks, though this time the plant creature sounded far less pleased with itself.
The vines fell away momentarily, and the small bat immediately began to flap its wings, finally aware that its very life was at stake in that moment. Rakeesh, though shaking with fear and anxiety, watched as the flying creature made its way back to its hiding place amongst the top rocks. Rakeesh roared then, for the first time in his young life (he had tried before, but the sound had always caused more laughter than fear). The formation of rocks bounced the sound off of them, causing a supernaturally loud echo to split the air there in the Savannah. Rakeesh heard nothing more from the hidden plant-monster, though his victory cry soon brought a scouting party to his location. After much scolding, the older liontaurs carried the exhausted young cub back through the Savannah, and to the worried arms of his Mother.
It was that day that Rakeesh Sah Tarna would learn that not all that glitters in this world is gold, a lesson that he would never forget later in life. Even his Mother, who after crying, and after shouting, and after listening to the cubling's story; even she would tell her beloved son that his eyes always seemed a little wiser than they had before that day. And Rakeesh would always remember his first roar - one that had shaken the earth, had frightened a mythical beast, and had rescued a young creature from deadly peril.
The One-Before-Whom-Evil-Trembles. The Lady of Flame. The Avenger of Wrongs. The Warrior Goddess. The Lioness. The Goddess Who Came Before All Else; all of these names were given to Sekhmet. It was She that the proud race of liontaurs that ruled Tarna looked to as their Great Leader. It was Her judicious eye that allowed both the humans and the beasts that ruled them to co-exist peacefully. And at the top of the Great Stairs which led up from the Great-Wall lie The Temple of Sekhmet, where those who were closest to Heaven would hold commune with their Goddess.
But Sekhmet, for all of Her Wisdom and all of Her great Power, was not an easy Goddess to please. The Liontaurs forced perfection upon themselves - to survive in Tarna one must be wise, strong, selfless, and judicial; for the price to pay for committing a crime in the city-state was to be branded Honorless to the people of Tarna.
Here, in Rhy'Din, there are many without honor who survive, and often-times even thrive. In Tarna, to be named Honorless meant that no man or liontaur with Honor could speak to you. You could not buy food, or acquire a job - in short, there was no redemption to ever be had. Some of those branded Honorless under a Court of Sekhmet sought to Exile themselves, looking to survive the massive deserts to the north in hopes of landing upon a traveling caravan who would take them to the Great City of Shapier. Some Honorless men (for it was nearly always man who committed crimes, and not the liontaur) would even risk execution to stow away on ships sailing from the Tarnian Port to the Island of Marete - seeking refuge in Silmaria, where the presence of a powerful Thieves' Guild could provide them a new life.
Most, however, could not survive without the world to interact with. Driven to madness, or to hatred, the Honorless in Tarna most often times forfeited their own lives in one violent way or another. It was the sacrifice necessary to create a Utopian Society - and the people of Tarna, largely, were happy with Sekhmet's Law.
This is the tale of Rakeesh Sah Tarna, just fourteen years old, and his greatest childhood friend; a seventeen year old orphan human named Ad Avis. Ad Avis had been struck by misfortune his entire life - born into a family of Brigand Nomads from the City of Raseir, a great war forced many thieves and nomads to flee the growing power of the desert Sultan and Emir. This is how Ad Avis' mother and father came to Tarna. However, once arrived, they were unable to cease their life of crime - and in Tarna, Sekhmet's Great Eye sees all.
Picture a scene - a Mother, a Father, a young son, and an infant. The infant being torn from the Mother's arms; the Father drawing a guardsman's saber, attempting to rescue his son; the liontaurs turning on the father, their spears piercing his side and his heart; the Mother throwing herself off of the top of the large pyramid which housed the Court; the elder boy being forced from the court, while liontaurs and humans there alike hissed, "Honorless!" at him. It was this event which had become known as certainly the ugliest case of crime in memory amongst the citizens of Tarna, and it caused great sorrow to the hearts of all Just men in the country.
It was only a glimmer of fortune for Ad Avis, perhaps, that he was too young to have co-operated in his parents mugging and slaying of a local Apothecary as she sat in her home, brewing her potions. And perhaps it was another glimmer of fortune for Ad Avis that the liontaur which had carried him from the bloodstained Court of Sekhmet; who had seen the child all the way to the only orphanage in the City; who had even checked up on the boy many, many times throughout the years - was none other than Raksha Sah Tarna, father of Rakeesh Sah Tarna.
And though not even Sari Sah Tarna, the Great Seer, could foresee how Destiny and Heaven and Hell all conspired to turn the Wheels of Fate in all of Gloriannia with this story - that was, infact, exactly what was to come.
And it would begin with the story of how Ad Avis would become Honorless through self-sacrifice, and the story of how Rakeesh Sah Tarna would learn of his Destiny; to become a great Hero to his people, and to the entire world.
The City-State of Tarna. Children in Tarna were seen as the future and hope for the City-State. They were encouraged to play games with each other, to expand their minds and bodies as they prepared for the trials of survival in a dangerous world. On this day, the fourteen year old liontaur, Rakeesh Sah Tarna, was to play a game he and his seventeen year old human friend, Ad Avis, had invented alongside the prodigal teenage-sorceress Kreesha.
The Sorceress would summon a tangible ball of harmless light energy and two teams would be formed. The boys playing would use sticks to strike at the floating energy-ball in an attempt to hit one of the opposing players and knock them out. It was simple enough, but the joy in the game was that even if you were hit, a blast of rejuvinating warmth would sweep over your body as the ball of magic passed through you. Rakeesh, Ad Avis, and Kreesha all thought themselves very clever for inventing a game that their parents and stewards could never nag at them for playing.
"Rak-ee is on my team!", the tall, dark, and handsome Ad Avis shouted with a wiry grin.
The other boys groaned audibly. Rakeesh was, despite his young age, the champion of this game - his aggression and reflexes were impressive even to many of the city-guards who sometimes took breaks in their patrols to watch the children play.
Minutes later the game progressed. Streaks of magical light lingered in the air from where the boys struck the ball back and forth at each other. This day, thus far, was like any other day - Ad Avis and Rakeesh used teamwork and the benefits given to those who are lucky enough to invent the game that they play on the streets.
After the children had finished their game, Rakeesh stayed to talk to his friend, Ad Avis. The older boy had told Rakeesh that he had something very important to speak with him about. The hot sun beat down on the young liontaur, causing his fur to become moist as he and Ad Avis climbed to the top of the Apothecary's pyramid-structured home. They often sat there to watch the last minutes of the day set fire to the ancient stones of the Great City.
They sat there for many minutes in silence, waiting for the inevitable coming of night. Finally, Rakeesh spoke.
"Effendi, what is it that you feel you cannot tell your friend?", the liontaur asked cautiously, noting the pensive expression Ad Avis had on his face.
"Do you think that I will one day be an even greater Magic-User than Kreesha, Rakeesh?", the boy asked honestly, without much sign of emotion.
"You have been studying so hard, Ad Avis. I am sure that you will become a great Sorcerer one day." Rakeesh offered the encouraging words, along with a friendly smile to the older boy.
There was a long pause before Ad Avis spoke again. "I met my brother last night, Rakeesh. He came to me while I was swimming in the tributary."
Rakeesh's eyes widened with surprise. "What did he say to you, effendi? It is dangerous for him to be here. He should be in Exile", Rakeesh said gently, worried for the orphan that he had come to consider a brother.
Ad Avis' visage darkened for a moment. When he turned to look at Rakeesh, his voice was very soft, "He's my brother, Rakeesh. He is the only family I have. He - he asked me to help him rob the Temple tonight. He said that if we fenced some of the riches there, we could flee to Shapier and live like Sultans."
The young liontaur was stunned. The Temple was sacred to him, and the thought of his friend defiling it sickened him. Still, he felt for Ad Avis' pain. Rakeesh stared straight ahead, watching as the Great Light in the Sky began to sink behind the horizon, shooting beams of crimson and orange onto the streets of Tarna. He simply could not respond.
"Rak-ee? Effendi? You must not tell anyone about this. In Shapier, Raj Avis tells me that there is the greatest school of magic in all of Gloriannia. It is called the Wizards Institute of Technosorcery. I can finally have a chance to be more than an orphan."
Rakeesh nodded slowly, and then they sat there in silence until the last of the day had vanished, and the whispering night-creatures grew louder than the daytime hum of busy merchants on the streets below. Ad Avis climbed back down the Apothecary's home, sneaking into the shadows and out of view.
The young liontaur sat motionless, still, for several minutes. Then, he clenched his jaw tightly and leaped down from the pyramid and onto the streets below. He looked up at the great statue of the Lady of the Flames, and sprinted off on his four legs towards the Temple of Sekhmet.
The Sorcerer shakes off the Paladin's child-hood memories, as he has done so often before, and looks to his new home with a hungry anticipation of what is to come.
Rhy'Din's Old Temple District. He had called it home before, once. Part of him still denies the truth of it, the broken part of him, the part that has all but outlived its usefulness.
The liontaur is old now, white-maned, and so surely near to death. He could still swing a blade, though, and in Rhy'Din - that is all it took to rise from homelessness to near royalty. He had pushed himself hard, too hard, perhaps, in the tournament.
In the cellar of his newly-acquired estate, Rakeesh's gut cries out in hunger as he shuts the old oak door behind him with a dull 'thud' and looks on at what success had bought him. Chained to the wall, both hands gloved by some strange machine, a balding man adorned in the robes of the Catholic Clergy awakens and gasps in panic at the sight of the liontaur.
The prisoner struggles against his bonds, to no avail, before spitting out the desperate plea, "My son, I am a man of the cloth. You would not risk the divine retribution of the Lord Savior himself come down upon you!"
The growling laughter that escapes from Rakeesh's lips is cold, filling the cellar with its scorn for the Priest. The beast rumbles back a bemused response, "I know you, Crysalim, son of Aarseth. I find it delicious and ironic that you, who fought against the Catholics when the Old Temple District ran red with their blood, now hide amongst them. But you, Crysalim, are no Priest. You are a hedge wizard, at best, but it will do for now." The beast's taunts drain the robed man's blood from his face, and Crysalim's eyes widen in fear.
"Dra- Drakhar? In the Paladin's ... ? No. I am free of you! You are --", Crysalim cries out in a girlish shriek.
"Dead?", the creature roars back at the prisoner, drowning the room in furious sound, causing Crysalim's voice to catch in their throat. Then, more gently, Rakeesh continues, nearly purring to his prey, "No, no. No. The rumors of my demise were greatly exaggerated, I am afraid."
Somewhere beyond the estate, dawn is breaking and birds are chirping - still resisting the winds of winter and their push southward. Beneath the estate, in the cellar, an ex-Myr'Khulian Sorcerer's dying screams go unheard.
Some hours later, when Rakeesh Sah Tarna, Baron of the Old Temple District, emerges into the courtyard overlooking the already busy streets below, he bathes in the sun. He is washed clean now, rid of the haunting odor of Dockside back alleys, and his noble mane shines a youthful red beneath the light of the new morn.
Rhy'Din's Old Temple District, in the so-called Baron's Estate.
The beast waits patiently in the hidden room beyond the cellar, his heightened sense of hearing counting the footsteps falling with practiced grace on the other side of the faux stone wall. He is proud of himself, a feeling so second nature to him over the years that it is an easy thing for him to overcome his emotions to stay focused on the task at hand.
Everything has been leading to this moment. The mages had kept him youthful, temporarily, but he cannot deny the universal truth that makes his nights sleepless; he is dying, quickly, and no amount of magic will save his body. The intrigue of the foreign sensation has long since turned into loathing.
Thirteen. Louder now.
"What is his weakness?", he had asked the spice merchant nearby the Docks, making a point to slip the cretin a single piece of copper first.
"Women", the old serpent had answered, greedily. "Sorceresses. 'e can't quit'em." And so a simple question had driven him in a way that he had forgotten that he was capable of - to take the Barony, to slowly weave the web, to find the perfect fly.
The dead girl on the other side of the door was once a pretty thing. Pretty and useless, beyond her paltry talent in the Arcane Arts. The liontaur pulls the lever and the wall rotates with an ancient groan. He cannot help but grin at the surprise of the white-haired warrior standing before him. He watches surprise turn to disgust, rage - and pain. She had meant something to him, in life.
A weakness indeed.
"Thank you for joining me this evening. Let's commence with the violence and move on. I'm afraid that I'm quite busy", Rakeesh taunts the pseudo-man before him.
The warrior's silver blade is out of its sheath faster than Rakeesh expects. Luckily for the lion, he is already armed. Moss-covered walls eat the sound of fighting, silver upon iron, as the intruder throws himself at the liontaur in a frenzy.
He is good. Very good. The warrior's speed is incredible, and he is far stronger than he appears. Comparatively, the warrior is young, though, and has much to learn about conserving his energy. The fight begins ill for the beast, and he bleeds first.
Yet, just as the warrior appears to have Rakeesh scrambling to defend, he makes a mistake. He pauses for a brief moment to violently suck in a breath. He is near spent.
It's the liontaur's turn now. He is slower than the man, even winded, but the beast's long, sweeping strikes and raw power begin to take control of the battle. The white-haired warrior drops back, warily keeping his sword up to prepare against another brutal blow; then, with a wicked smile, the warrior raises his left hand and draws a rune in the air.
Inferno, a living flame, takes the cell for a mere moment, barreling towards Rakeesh. And then it stops, the invader's spell disenchanted as if by some unseen force.
It's over now.
"Would you like to see true magic, Witcher?", the beast boasts, already raising his left hand. "You will see much of it before the night is through, I'm afraid."
The warrior grits his teeth and leaps towards the liontaur, but he had put too much distance between them in his retreat: there is not enough time to stop Rakeesh's spell.
With a strange word, nearly incomprehensible, the beast summons a choking darkness that fills the room. His self-satisfied, bellowing laugh echoes in the cell, the sound assaulting the warrior's ears as he collapses to the ground, writhing in pain.
The warrior would never see color, or anything, ever again. Rakeesh would make certain of that.
It's a frigid night in the Baronial Manor of the Old Temple District in Rhy'Din. The Witcher stirs, but the beast knows that he will not come to; the curses placed upon him are too strong to overcome, even for his mutated genes.
The liontaur shivers incessantly, barely able to keep his eyes open. His body is old, and dirty white mane falls from his head in clumps to the cellar's cold stone floor. He stays focused, channeling his Will through one very powerful spell, pushing his dying body to its very limits.
And yet, the Paladin batters away at the creature's hold, a battle of two souls taking place to determine control over the fragile body left shaking in the dark. This is not the first time that Rakeesh Sah Tarna has attempted to free himself of the Drakhar's Will.
The Sorcerer swears that it will be the last, though.
He bitterly remembers a cold night, very similar to this one, five years ago. The liontaur had thwarted his plans to draw Avoozl, the Dark One, the one who would bring eternal night, from Rakeesh's home-world to this world. Noble until the end, Rakeesh had seen through the distraction of his religious war in the Old Temple District, perpetrated merely to distract the heroes of Rhy'Din for long enough for the summoning to be completed.
And so, upon a battlement ritually soaked in the blood of Catholic martyrs, the vampire's body that had been his home for thousands of years was destroyed. And yet, his spirit thrived, and he would not give in to death. And so, in an act of final defilement, he thrust his soul into the beast's body, a dying flesh-cave to house his essence.
But something in the spell went awry. The spell should have sent the Paladin's soul to oblivion, by his estimations. And yet, Rakeesh was still within him, fighting to take control once again when his Will is most vulnerable.
No more. Soon, the beast would sleep - and sleep forever. He admires the strength and conviction of the old Paladin, mortal that he is, but he himself is Vanion Shadowcast - and he will not be denied his vengeance for five years of feeling death encroach upon him every day. Finally, he will be free of Rakeesh, he will be free of death - and he will be free of Myr'Khul.
The beast's teeth chatter noisily as the Paladin's soul tires and fades away once again. With that annoyance out of the way, he refocuses his energies on the spell, on Soulforge, floating before him in the cell.
The Witcher stirs, his right fist clenching loosely before his hand slumps back against the chain that binds him to the wall. He will not awaken tonight. And so the Sorcerer continues his spell, hanging onto life by a thread; he summons the released psychic energies from fearful mages all around Rhy'Din and channels them into Soulforge, the once holy blade.
Slowly, it fills, like a cup. And the beast can almost taste the freedom that will be his, after so many years.
((This post finally connects this storyline to the epilogue from Genocide and War in the Old Temple District))
The cock has yet to crow in the Old Temple District, while a treacherous meeting takes place deep beneath its streets in a forgotten catacomb; the sunken Temple of Myr'Khul looms silently, a dark monolith lingering as a hidden testament to the strength that the cult once held in Rhy'Din.
The carefully laid plans of Rakeesh Sah Tarna, for he has grown nearly accepting of the lie that is his name, hinge on the next several days. He has already done what he may to begin to mend the wounds dealt by the necessary aggression that his goals demanded from him. Before the game moves into its next phase, however, there is one loose end that must be dealt with before he can put his mind towards his challenge for the Overlord's Mantle.
The beast lingers just within the dusty confines of the small courtyard that opens up into the empty temple beyond. He has been waiting for nearly an hour now, and even he is not beyond nerves. It is just as he begins to consider leaving that Jonothan Slava appears, not visibly at first, but by the tell-tale stink of death and decay that heralds his arrival. The man is pitiable, more often crazed than lucid - and always more dead than he is alive.
The ex-guardsman slips over the outer wall of the temple and lands in the brambles of the courtyard's dead bushes with a 'snap' and 'crunch'. Rakeesh watches as the ghoul drags its appendages behind him, long, slimy, alien things.
"It isss done, Lord Drakhar", Jonothan hisses, the unpleasant sound echoing telepathically in the liontaur's mind. Jono has always made him uncomfortable when he speaks in his own voice.
"Were you followed?", the beast asks greedily, already sending his own psyche out to confirm that the two of them are alone in this palace of pain.
"No, my Lord. I took the long road to come to you", the undead thing answers. Rakeesh shivers involuntarily, an unfortunate side-effect of being a living, breathing being.
Then, the beast grins and speaks with a commanding bass, his tone acrid, "Tell me."
"The lassst of the Khul-din demonsss have been ssstripped of their psssychic commandsss. They will roam and feed on their own now, unloyal to any agendassss ... even our own", Jonothan reports dutifully, in his strange monotone hiss.
The beast appears pleased. "Good. With their mental wipe, there is nothing traceable from the Khul-din to lead any hunters back to you", he bellows, before asking his next question, "And what of the children?"
"Before I erasssed the programming of the Khul-din, I ordered the demonssss to plant the trigger that you asssked of me into the posssssesssed children. I have probed and the triggersss remain in tact", the ghoul answers without hesitation.
"You have done well, Jono. You've always served me well", Rakeesh offers the gentle words as he reaches out a hand to stroke Jonothan's face. The undead servant falls to his knees before the liontaur and begins to weep, quietly.
"W-will you? Will you make me whole now ... asss you promisssed, my lord?", Jonothan hisses between broken, pathetic sobs. Rakeesh continues to stroke his rotten face with pity in his eyes.
"There are few choices that I have made in my long life, Jono, that I regret. What I have done to you is one of them", the beast purrs, now cradling the ghoul like a father would to a young child. "No. I have never been able to heal what I did to you. It was always a lie."
Jonothan Slava screams in pain, horror, hatred and despair; each emotion has its own voice, the voice of a different damned soul. The ghoul struggles to push up and escape Rakeesh's grasp. The liontaur is strong, though, and he holds him unrelentingly.
"Shhh. Quiet now, Jono", Rakeesh's soothing voice whispers in an earnest attempt to calm his most loyal servant. "The pain will soon end."
From beyond the walls of the sunken temple, smoke rose with the wafting odor of burning death. Jonothan screamed for nearly an hour, hidden away from the world as he died.
And the Sword of Cups continued to fill, its once holy magic defiled by the bound, hungry Blade-Wraiths summoned to this realm by the Cat Demoness Shakira.
The Sword of Cups is full. The Overlord's Mantle is his. Why, then, did the victory feel so hollow? Certainly he had no qualms with living a lie.
Vanion Shadowcast finds the old music box just where Rakeesh had left it when last he was Overlord, in the library of the Overlord's Isle Manse. He spies it atop a book, a novelty volume of apothecary knowledge from Tarna, the liontaur's very distant homeland. The box rests next to a dried rose.
Carefully, the beast rinses the Witcher's blood from his hands and suspends the iron greatsword mid-air in preparation for the ritual. He did not have much time to clean his mess from the Old Temple Baronial Manor, and he is exhausted from the work; it has been days since last he slept. He knows that it will all be over soon.
The Sorceror had studied the pertinent volume well more than a thousand times over. He begins the ritual without excitement, merely going through the motion of its magics. He lifts the music box, a trinket, a gift of fondness from the liontaur's Sorceress wife, and examines it. Blinking rapidly to force his old eyes to remain open, he begins the basic ground-work enchantment, a freezing gust of nether-wind stealing the words from his tongue. Dark spirits encircle the room, dancing around the torchlit flames that flicker in their wall-sconces.
The next hour of necromantic rituals would frighten most normal citizens. It is the equivalent of doing the dishes to the Sorceror; only the final section of the ritual would demand much from him. The rest of the work had gone into its preparation: the re-forging of the old wraith-blades that were in Myr'Khul's possession from the war, the amalgamation of those tainted demons with the white magic imbued in Rakeesh's holy-sword Soulforge, the fear propagated throughout the city en mass to feed the sword's hunger, and the accumulation of this magical box, this box of music, the only trinket of any real power remaining from the Paladin's home-world.
In two months, he had risen from being homeless, wandering, waiting to die - to earning his Baronial home by way of blade and tournament, defending it twice and challenging the Overlady to take her mantle and allow him extended access to the Isle. Everything that he had done was necessary - and he had not failed in one inch of it.
Still, the victory rang somehow hollow.
Finally, the liontaur finishes the ritual and the damned spirits of the room wrap themselves around the enchanted music box, sealing it, protecting it. The iron greatsword falls from air, clattering noisily to the ground. Disposed of its foul possession by way of ritual transference, the Sword of Cups was empty and pure once again. This matters little to the liontaur, more Vanion Shadowcast than Rakeesh Sah Tarna in all ways that truly mattered.
Drained to the point of silliness, the creature sings a song to the music box, as he cradles it against his chest, "Eenyabotta, inkyananabota", he repeats, poorly paraphrasing the opening lyrics to Lion King as he raises the enchanted box over his head as though it were the cub from the Earth film. And then, he wills it away, teleporting it to another, secret place.
And he is spent. He slowly meanders over to the forgotten apothecary book that once belonged to his host and stares down blankly at it. Just a short couple of years ago, he had promised himself to never be a slave or murderer for cosmic forces greater than himself ever again. Pleased with his new, mortal body, he thought being able to look into the Sun itself would be pleasure enough for the ex-Vampire: enough to last for the rest of his days.
He was wrong. Old habits die hard. People suffer. People die.
"Not I, though. I am greater than that", he tells himself aloud, the words sounding as hollow as his victory. And then, he weeps, quietly. His tears wet his fur and fall to stain the open page of Rakeesh's book.
"Tears of joy, Father?", the chilling voice of the young girl calls out to him from the shadows. Mischaelna. His daughter. The only loose end that he did not have the heart to cut. He sucks back a wad of spittle and turns his head towards the shadows. He does not see her, but she is an elven vampiress - and she is up to one of her games.
"It's over, Mischa. The ritual is complete. We will be safe again soon", he speaks gently in Rakeesh's voice. There is a moment of silence, then a ringing, cruel laugh that retorts from his daughter's hiding place.
"After everything that you've stirred up in this city, do you truly think that we are going to be safe? Come on, Father. You summoned more hatred towards you than fear", she taunts him. Damn her, but she is right.
"This body is dying, Mischa. I did what was necessary, to ensure that I will not die with it. Now, I can play the part of the career duelist without worry. I will protect you. Life is so much more simple, when it is dictated by the sword. Or do you not like the new home your Father has won for you?", the beast rumbles warily, his eyes darting about the shadows to attempt to spot his daughter's ever-changing hiding place.
Mischaelna giggles, the sound echoing all around the beast. "You are not my Father. My Father laid waste to countries. To speak my Father's very name was in a sin in some religions, and a superstitious danger in others. My Father had no remorse. No pity. He had ambition. You are more the lion now, than my Father", she whispers slowly, making every word hurt.
The beast growls, then bites back, voice booming, "Step out from the shadows, girl, and I'll show you just how much of your Father I am."
"My Father never apologized. My Father would eat those ... commoners ... for breakfast. He would tear their families apart, with his bare hands. He would protect me. No, Father, I am taking my leave of you and this manse. I'll return to you once that body has died and you are free from the Paladin's boooring, useless conscience. In the meantime, have fun with your simple life, your dueling career. You're as dirty and pathetic as the rest of them", she continues to lay into Vanion, brutally. Her words grow quiet as she begins to slip out of the library towards the end of the speech, a calculated laughter in her tone. The Sorceror is too exhausted to chase after her.
When she is gone, his mind drifts to ponder on those that he has recently crushed, violently or spiritually, in the name of self-preservation. He does feel remorse. He weeps, again, tears falling to the desk that houses Rakeesh's old apothecary book.
Gods, but his daughter could be be a real **** sometimes.
Rhy'Din, just past dawn. Sunlight spills through the stain-glass windows, sending sloppy rays of color across the granite floor of the library of the Overlord's Manor. Rakeesh isn't speaking. He isn't moving. He has been at this all night, now, and the self-proclaimed PR Wizard does not appear to be slowing down in his drug-addled rambling.
"Do you hear a word that I'm saying, Overlord? Is any of this getting through that thick skull of yours?", Erasmus nags between puffing on his pipe, the rare, speedy herbal mixture's tell-tale stink filling the room.
Rakeesh does not answer.
"Look. I'm gonna go through this with you one last time. After that, I'm out of here. I have a life too and it doesn't include dealing with you when you're like this", Erasmus feigns mock insult, though his dramatics have no more affect on the liontaur now than they did in their previous attempts. "You summoned me from a Hell dimension without asking, which would usually piss me off, but it just so happens that there were multiple demon clans there that wanted me kaputsky. I get it. You saved my life, you offered me a job, that's great. But you are failing at holding up your end of the bargain. I can't trust you to speak in public, or else you're gonna eat your boot and rile the community up against you. Your fan-base is dropping, quickly, you've not managed to secure a single contract from your old team members, nobody - and I mean nobody - has signed up for try-outs on the corkboard. Kalamere has declared himself Renegade leaving you with no loyal support on the council ... and you have a long line of Barons and Warlords waiting to get a chance to kick your a**. Do you understand how precarious, how f***ing precarious your situation is right now?"
Rakeesh dislikes Erasmus. He dislikes him more when he is speeding. Still, he answers the question quietly, wishing that he could rest, "I need support. I'll get the duelists. They're my friends. I just need time, Erasmus."
The goofy-looking demon in charge of the PR for Champions of Mythos, bites back, having expected that response, "Time. Oh, time and friends! That's right, because you have so much of those to spare. Crew just won the Warlord Tournament last night, which means that Tical's comin' for you. Meanwhile, all of your already-shaky corporate sponsors are ready to pull funding from Champions of Mythos if you can't prove that you're able to field a team. That means no new stadium, no contract, no money, no support. It means you're dead in the water."
Rakeesh retorts levelly, while rubbing fingers into his temple where his head aches the worst, "I hired you to make this happen. You know the deal, Erasmus. Keep me out of trouble and bring me duelists. Help me field a team. If you can't do that, and the corporate sponsors pull their funding, then that means you're out of a job. Please, I encourage you to remember our bargain." The beast is exhausted of the games of shifting blame. Erasmus is failing him.
The color drains from Erasmus's face, turning the impish shade of red to an almost pig-like pink. And yet, the demon still manages scorn in his response to the liontaur's veiled threat, "I can only do so much, dumb***. You've showered yourself in **** and now the chickens are coming home to roost."
"Fix it", the beast bellows back, rubbing harder at his temple.
"Fix it? Fix yourself, first. Look at you, man", Erasmus begins, pausing to laugh at the liontaur - which only makes Rakeesh's head throb harder. "So what, you can swing a sword? You're a f***ing mess. You lie and tell most of the world that you're Rakeesh, some sort of Paladin. You lie and tell those of us that you need on your side that you're Vanion, some sort of whatever-the-hell you are. You ain't either one of those things! Your brain doesn't work. You're on the edge, Overlord. On the edge. You can't be the lion and the sorcerer. Can't handle it. You want my honest opinion? Go ahead and cancel your town hall meeting and back the hell off of Old Temple. Then, resign your title and sort out your life. It's too much for you right now. You're becomin' the lion more and more every d--"
Rakeesh sees nothing but red, now. He snaps an arm out and grasps a hold of the demon's scrawny neck. He lifts Erasmus from the ground, teeth gritting, and slams his face into the cold granite floor. And again. And again, harder. Green blood spills from the wounds, staining the otherwise pristine stone. Then, the beast lifts Erasmus, the demon's face now looking akin to something out of a demented Picasso painting. He growls, low and in the back of his throat, his intention clear, "Find the duelists. Or you will beg me to send you back to the Hell that you came from. And get yourself off of the narcotics. They make you unpleasant to work with."
And with that, knowing well that Erasmus was in no shape to ramble any longer, the beast tosses the demon like a rag-doll; the liontaur's victim crashes limply into a pillar and falls to the cold stone floor.
And so the liontaur moves slowly, and with purpose, to his desk, where he takes up a quill and begins to write a letter to an old friend. The light filtering in through the library's stain-glass window casts color over the right side of his leonine face, drowning the other half of the beast's face in the shadows of the Manor.
A great winter storm rages over Rhy'Din, its icy fury both merciless and soft, deadly and seductive. Rakeesh lingers within the Overlord's Manor impatiently, aware that his plans to make use of the rare, powerful storm, left him a small window of opportunity; he regrets promising Erasmus to waste his time with business efforts. And yet, that is precisely what he is doing.
"And so the majority of the corporate funding for this season, per se, has been processed. I did as you asked and paid the crew of the Phaross Max, and the Champions' Arena is launched. There are still some minor elements of the ship that need to be -", Erasmus prattles on, nervously, until the beast raises a closed fist to signal him to be silent. Erasmus obeys without hesitation; his face is still a deconstructed disaster from the beating the liontaur gave him just over a week earlier.
"I understand. Move on", the beast commands quietly, boredom thick in his deep grumble.
Agreeable tonight, the demon continues, "Everything regarding the team is going well, otherwise. Contracting Joku, Aenlyn and Napoleon is engaging the Champions' older fanbase, which was the main concern of our financial backers. Also, sir", he hesitates for a moment. There is a low growl in the back of Rakeesh's throat that urges him onward, "The three hunters that you hired from Hyrtha are here. They've come to collect their bounty."
And there is the news that he had been waiting for. The creature grins, lopsidedly, and demands, "You have not forgotten my order to immediately prepare the subject. You would not dare."
"No, sir. She is on the roof, as you requested", Erasmus answered, nervously. Good. Perhaps he would not miss his opportunity after all.
"Send in the mercenaries, Erasmus, and then take the rest of the night off", Rakeesh commands calmly, almost purring throughout the order.
The subservient demon grants the liontaur his request. He leaves the lavish guest bedroom behind, shutting the door carefully behind him. Rakeesh waits, teeth beginning to grit, behind the simple wooden desk. He shifts his weight upon his hind haunches, waiting for the mercenaries to enter. A moment later, they do just that, and all three of the bruisers look as though they have had better days.
The three mercenaries wordlessly take a seat in the chairs surrounding Rakeesh, as the beast gestures; they bear grim expressions, hidden partially behind masked helms and large furs. They appear as many northmen do to the beast: strong, aggressive and stupid.
The largest of the three northmen, the one that the liontaur has come to think of as Handlebar, speaks first - his voice haunted. He claims, hoarsely, "This prey was not so young as you had us believe, lion-man. Four great warriors of Hyrtha died to capture it. Good men. Strong. Brave."
There is no sympathy in the beast's tone, "And you thought that it would be easy? Fool. I would not offer so much coin for an easy task. Is the subject alive?"
"She is", Handlebar replies, grimacing. "And you will pay us three times what you offered, so that we may bear the bodies of our friends back to Hyrtha for an honorable funeral. You owe us that much at least, lion-man."
The laughter that escapes from Rakeesh's lips rings cold, hollow, and yet still bemused. Then, the liontaur speaks plainly, "I most certainly will not. You and your friends are little better than poachers. Thieves. I keep my word. Be happy, fool! Now your coin purse will take the shares that would have gone to your dead friends."
"R-aaaargh! Morten. Peiraneu! Hans! These were men, giants among men. You will treat them with -", the edge, the fury and posturing common in taverns in less cultured lands grows with each word in Handlebar's voice. Before he finishes, he draws a sharp, wicked hunting knife from his ankle-sheath and stabs it downward before Rakeesh, leaving it whipping back and forth - stuck in the surface of the wooden table. Then, he takes a deep breath and finishes his threat, "You will treat them with respect, beast. Now, you will sign a voucher to triple our fee, or Sven here will take our payment in pounds of your flesh."
The threat is augmented with a 'rattle-rattle-CLICK' as Sven stands from his seat, sporting a loaded crossbow. He levels it down and towards the liontaur, face tense and his right forefinger slowly pressing the trigger further. The liontaur gazes up at the bowman, then narrows his hard stare upon Handlebar, before retorting levelly, "Do you truly believe that this will end well for you?"
"You have a reputation, lion-man. For being an insect, a coward, spine-less and with--", the northman whispers his last words. More quickly than he appears capable of moving, Rakeesh snaps the hunting dagger from the table before him and slashes wide and towards the seated pair. There is a moment of hesitation, confusion, in the bowman, before he makes the subconscious decision to pull the trigger; the liontaur is faster. He follows up his slash with a quick flick of his wrist, launching the dagger in a straight line.
A moment later, the sitting northmen grab at their throats, unable to contain the life fluid that sprays messily from their severed jugular veins. The bowman drops to the ground, dead already, the hunting dagger planted firmly through the front of his skull. His trigger-finger involuntarily compresses, and a crossbow bolt grazes past Rakeesh's left shoulder without impact. The beast merely rises and steps over a growing puddle of warm blood. He leaves the room behind, letting the dying northmen waste no more of his time.
Erasmus can clean up the mess later, the old creature muses, as he presses for the spiral stairs that lead up to the Manse's roof. When he crosses the threshold, the fury of the winter storm is upon him, assaulting his aged bones and joints. He bears it though, as he has many times before, leaving all other concerns and worries behind him as he comes face-to-face with the mercenaries' prize.
He stares the large frost dragon in the eyes. The beast is sedated, but still thrashes at the sight of the abomination that is Rakeesh - Vanion - the Paladin and the Sorcerer. The two, liontaur and dragon, peer through the window of the others' eyes and into one another's souls.
She knows me.
Atop the Overlord's Manse, the winds howl hungrily, their otherworldly cry rising in crescendo. He can hear, then, the voices of damned souls and forgotten spirits that are trapped there in that elemental force - a hellish, hopeless chorus screaming and freezing the earth below them in their misplaced rage. He already can barely feel his paws or hands, and yet, it concerns him not. He has, in his possession, a dragon. Muzzled. Chained. Unable to defend itself. His.
He waits no longer, and despite the helpless, majestic creature's useless attempts to defend itself, the ancient spell crafted for this evening takes nearly immediate effect. The Sorcerer commands, if only for mere moments, the elemental magic of the winter storm, summoning its strength through the frost dragon; it is almost as if the beast's soul acts as a cheese-cloth, filtering out unnecessary elements to fuel the liontaur with the might of Winter itself.
To Rakeesh, it is an incredible high - far greater a feeling than what could be gained through narcotics. He infuses himself with the magical power he deems necessary to enhance his dueling career, immediately increasing his strength, speed, endurance by fueling it with the dragon's icy soul.
To the frost dragon, it is the most painful two minutes of its long life. And then, when it is over, there is merely a shadow of a dragon where before stood a royal beast. The Sorcerer's life-draining spells leave nothing more than an icy shell of a dragon, as beautiful and lifeless as an ice sculpture.
When the sun next rises, even that remainder will melt, the Sorcerer muses, not caring one way or another what happens to the icy husk that had been a dragon moments earlier. Lost in the rush of magically-imbued strength, the beast lingers atop the Manse, staring down the stormy sky for hours.
And the Paladin sleeps deep within the beast, fearing what Rakeesh has done, and dreaming of either freedom or death.
((This section of the story is in reaction to this playable event.))
North of Rhy'Din, the night after the beast calling himself Rakeesh defeated Ticallion Carter in the Arena, the snow has ceased to fall for a time. The Overlord treats himself with a hunt through old woods, paying little heed to the chill in his bones, or the moans of a winter that does not seem to want to die.
The liontaur treks through the thicket of dead branches and trees, stalking his prey. The Sorcerer enjoyed hunting in his own body, as a creature of the night; however, he enjoys now a more primal form of that Hunt. He finds it invigorating and, simultaneously, amusing. He lost sight of the black bear one - perhaps one-hundred-and-fifty yards prior. But the bear's scent is strong, and the hunter knows that he is close.
His gut rumbles with hunger, as his paws dance lightly over the packed snow, barely making a noise with his soft steps. Silently, he lowers himself to examine the bear tracks that lead towards a less dense section of bramble-wood. He follows the tracks, continuing his pursuit. He will eat well tonight, and take his spoils from nature.
The Sorcerer feels a rush of blood to his cheeks as he approaches the edge of the forest, where it opens up to a clearing beyond. He enjoys playing the part of the Alpha Hunter. He might loathe his dying body, the encroaching oppression of time and age, but his own dark magic has gifted him with the ability to still enjoy playing the part of a beast.
There, just ahead, he spots what he believes to be a frozen lake in the middle of the clearing. He pushes past the tree-line, following the tracks to the lake, ever aware of his surroundings and the possibility of the black bear setting upon him.
I will not be caught off-guard, he reassures himself. To answer him, the wind screams in its descent from the mountain to the north, whipping over the leaf-less canopy of the dead greenwood. It is getting colder. Much colder. Far to the west, the sun threatens to leave the day behind, hidden behind long, icy clouds. The Sorcerer notices these things, and reminds himself that he will freeze should he not end this hunt soon.
And then, the beast is caught off-guard.
At the shore of a large lake, frozen over and forgotten, the bear's tracks inexplicably disappear before a strange object. There, perhaps three feet tall, a small, white pillar lingers, erected before the water. The hair on the beast's arms rise, slowly, pulling upward. The unforgiving cold settles deeper into his bones, and again, the mountain wind whips over the forest and screams in elemental rage.
That pillar was not there a moment ago, he muses. Feeling slightly a fool, the liontaur cranes his neck to look to his surroundings, wary of some sort of trap. He blinks, hard. When he looks back to the pillar before him once again, a figure there nearly stops his heart.
She is young, and beautiful in her own way. Dressed in a long, white grown, with a face as pale as the ice and snow and winter and death, the specter's head tilts inquisitively as she watches the beast - the invader. Then, she laughs at the Sorcerer's question, though he had not spoken it out loud. Her laugh is kind, almost flirting, but this does not put the liontaur at ease.
"Old, you look. Dying, you feel yourself. Slowly. So, so slowly. Long, I have waited", the ghostly young woman speaks slowly, with a voice like fire and water, soft and terrible. "Long, I have waited to see you again. Dare, to look into your eyes."
Do I know you, woman? Or are you just here to admire me and my beauty?, he quips without speaking. Despite his brashness, his instincts as a living creature inspire him to take two paces away from the apparition.
"Know me. You do, butcher. In my home, you crept, in the middle of the night. My husband's throat, you ripped out with your bare hands. Me, laying in bed, helpless", she echoes throughout the clearing in her crisp, alluring voice. She pauses then, sliding her right hand over her left arm, up to brush at the side of her ivory cheek, then to fall and slip down over her chest, across her breast, to her stomach. Her movements are soft, resigned, yet still seductive.
The Sorcerer is not wooed by women or ghosts, though, however intriguing they may be. He simply waits and watches, curiously, as she continues to perform her haunt for him.
She pauses after caressing herself and speaks again in her strange way, though the softness fades from the woman's tone the more she goes on, her voice growing shrill as she recalls an untold horror, "Awoken, I thought you a dream. A handsome elf come to give me pleasure. Forget, I would, about my starving and my misery. No, no. No. Saw I, then. On your hands, his blood! Jeffrey, beloved. You. Into pieces, you tore me. Flames, all around. Nothing you left us, but ashes. My daughter, taken, to raise as one of your slaves. Fiend! Butcher!"
He narrows his brown gaze towards the dead woman, and interjects in his true voice, not caring to refute her claims, "Enough with the games. Is it revenge you seek? Is that why you have lured me here?"
The ghostly woman's face, twisted in agony by memories of her own death, relaxes at his question. She giggles, playfully, the sound of a young woman running not from a murderer - but from a lover, giving gentle chase. Very slowly, she raises her right finger to hover over her lips. "Shh. They can hear us."
"To Hell with you, wench", the liontaur bellows out defiantly, his tone brash and challenging. "Yes, I killed your family. I remember you now. I did take your daughter, to raise her in the Myr'Khulian Temple. And when she proved useless and incapable of courage, I killed her too! That is the nature of the world. That is the destiny of the weak. Go, be dead, and bother me no more."
He releases necromantic magic with his command to the lake spirit, his curiosity having no longer been worth the annoying accusations of a woman who had been too weak to protect herself or her family. The dead woman opens her mouth to scream, perhaps pained by the Sorcerer's spell, but no sound escapes. A moment later, she dissolves, like wint'ry mist, into nothingness. Content, the beast turns to leave this forest and failed hunt behind.
And once again, the beast is caught off-guard.
Surrounding the tree-line and crowding the shore, is a host of hundreds, further than his old eyes can see. Ghosts. Some are white and spectral, like the lake woman. Others are mutilated, burned, dismembered, young and old, soldier and street rat, babe and crone; and all of them, he knew, had died at his hands in the Old Temple District. Fear creeps into his mortal heart, which beats like a deep drum beneath his breast. His breath grows shallow.
At the forefront of the dead legion steps Jonothan Slava's apparition, burned beyond recognition, its two tendril appendages dragging lifelessly through the snow. "Vanion. Drakhar. We have come to judge you", Jono intones, the once-slave's voice now his own.
"You burned down our orphanage, sir, while we slept", a young boy in the crowd calls out, daringly.
"You invaded my mind, devil! Made me. Take an axe to my own family, to myself!", a bearded specter cries, while holding his detached head in both hands at waist level.
"We begged ye for mercy", an old nun accuses the Sorcerer, croaking scratchily, "An' what mercy did y'give us? Y'let us starve in yer dungeons. Y'fed us th' scraps of our sisters an' damned us t' eternity in Hell."
The liontaur feels a hand colder than the grave lay itself upon his right shoulder. The first ghost, the lake woman as he had come to regard her, whispers softly in his ear from behind him, her pale face brushing against his frosted red mane. "Their faces, do you see? What you have done? For yourself, for your deeds, for your victims. To say, what have you?", she asks.
Swiftly, the beast shuffles away from the woman, retreating onto the edge of the lake. Steeling himself for a mere moment, his voice then booms with his hateful answer, "What do I have to say? You - incredible, insignificant fools! I am Vanion Shadowcast. I have slain ten, no, a hundred score of your kind in my life." The creature slashes, chopping violently with his left arm to emphasize his point before he continues, a cruel poison in his tone, "Ants! Worms, to me. The strong take what they want in this world, and they break the backs of insects like you to do it. Nothing! You were nothing to me, and you are nothing to me now. Go, and feast upon oblivion!"
The horde of ghostly victims laugh, in unison, at the Sorcerer's taunt and begin to walk side-by-side, together, to pursue him out over the lake. Backing out further onto the ice, he summons his reserves of energy, preparing a black spell meant to turn the vengeful spirits upon themselves.
"I am the master of death and spirits, you fools. I am your master!", he shrieks, concentrating through his fear to prepare the intricate spell. And it is in that moment that another force, having bided his time this night and many others, makes himself known.
The Paladin's spirit interferes, fighting for control over his body. The Sorcerer has never lost control to the Paladin, before, and knows that he can keep him at bay this time as well. But panic, a strange sensation to the once immortal creature, breaks his concentration. He pushes the Paladin down deep, into his gut, but at the cost of failing to prepare his spell.
And so, the beast retreats further onto the lake, away from the encroaching army of his victims. It is there, in the center of the lake, that he notices something beneath the icy surface. Recognition hits him like a spiked mace, and he feels fear once again. The liontaur turns to flee from the undead dragon, his most recent victim, as the majestic spirit breaks the surface of the frozen lake from below. As the ghostly dragon's head smashes up through the ice, the liontaur digs deep within his core to gather the strength to leap for the opposite shoreline and escape.
But his bones are old, his muscles are cold and unresponsive - and he never gets the chance to jump. Ice and the lake break around him, and he falls into the wat'ry depths, flailing helplessly before he is submerged. The cold strikes him like a thousand dagger-points, and the pain is unbearable for a few seconds.
The world around the Sorcerer goes dark, and he can no longer see anything. He believes that he can hear a chorus in the distance, above the lake: the angry, relieved, joyful cheers of those many in Rhy'Din that have suffered and died at the hands of Vanion the Butcher.
Moments pass, and there is nothing left for him but a murderer's regret, the mute question of what fate awaits a creature like him, and the tomb of the wilderness lake.
On the shore above, the ghosts have returned to Heaven or in Hell, or somewhere else entirely, while the sun begins to set over the mountains and the snow begins to gently fall from the sky to herald another evening in Rhy'Din.
Dusk has descended from above, casting its eerie glow upon an icy lake north of Rhy'Din. On the shore, a barely conscious liontaur's body shivers uncontrollably as he slowly pulls his way away from the water that was nearly his doom.
Rakeesh can feel his heart beating against his ribcage. He has not been awake, not truly awake, in years. The Sorcerer's hold over him was broken by the strange spirits and the lake itself, but he knows that Vanion still lives within him. And he knows what Vanion is plotting. Summoning the strength to fight his exhaustion and cold settling into his old, weary bones, the Paladin stands. He ambles away from the shore and into the nearby forest, making slow, yet steady progress towards the city.
I have to warn them. I have to make this right.
Dead, icy branches tear at his skin like harpy claws as he pushes through bramble and wood. His breathing is labored, but the liontaur knows that he has little time to reach Matthew Simon and Battlefield Park. Dusk gives way to nightfall, and the stars above gleam brightly in the wild to light Rakeesh's way beyond the forest. Once, a small pack of wolves stalk him, seeing him as perhaps easy prey from afar; but they do not attack.
The wilderness is helping me. It is my friend.
He almost laughs out loud at himself for having the thought. A hungry wolf is friend to no man or beast. He pushes on, through the early night, and it is nearly midnight when he finally can see the great walls of Rhy'Din in the distance. He pauses then, for a moment, to catch his breath. Despite the cold of the unwelcome, long winter, he is sweating.
Frost-bite. Hypothermia, perhaps. Don't die out here. If I do, he will be free.
Shivering, the liontaur decides to end his rest and drive himself to the city. It is a voice, something out of a dream, that stops him.
"Rakeeeeesh", the wind seems to whisper to him, even as it stings his skin and tortures his nerves. He cranes his neck to look around, fur sticking straight up upon his arms and the nape of his neck. It is then that she appears to him, looking just as she had the last time that he had seen her.
The liontauress stands behind him on the plains, and the paladin turns away from the city walls to look at her. She still wears the ornamental robe that he'd bought for her on the day of their wedding, and in her hand is the Staff of Tarna, her ancestral birthright as the High Sorceress of the City-State. The large sapphire adorning the staff head glows brightly, and pushes the hungry midnight shadows back from the pair. He does not trust this trick, some bait laid out for him by Vanion perhaps, or else a trick of his own ill mind.
The light afforded by the staff casts a gentle, pure glow across Kreesha's face, and she smiles. It is a simple smile, but it tugs at Rakeesh's heart. He smiles back, despite his wariness, as he takes in the wind blowing through the liontauress' gentle blonde hair and those wide, blue eyes that seem to embrace him from two yards away.
"Kreesha. How is this -?", the Paladin struggles to find the words, his greeting to a wife that he has not seen in ten years nothing like what he'd fantasized it might be.
"An anomaly, my dear. My champion. I am here because you are here", Kreesha answers kindly, slowly approaching the wounded beast with a loving pity in her eyes.
"You. There are so many things that I want to - to say - to...", Rakeesh struggles to find his tongue, his voice nearly as weak as his body. Tears begin to form in his eyes, and he shuts his mouth tightly. Slowly, he shakes his head before he speaks again, "I need your help, love. There is a man I must warn of a grave evil, and soon it will be too late. Can you carry me into the city?"
Regret touches Kreesha's features as she raises a hand, her pale fingertips nearly brushing against Rakeesh's face. She pauses there and apologies, in her hard, but compassionate voice, "No. I cannot carry you, Rakeesh. Nor can I follow you into the belly of the worm." The Paladin remembers those words; she spoke them once before, when he left her side to do battle with the Dark God of Mordavia, Avoozl. Then, necessity forced her to stay behind, to use her healing magics to save as many lives as she could from their makeshift army. Then, necessity forced him to leave, to sacrifice his life with her and his world to banish himself and Avoozl to a place far from Gloriannia.
But, Rakeesh knows that something is different about her now. He can sense it, as weak as he is. Weeping, he asks Kreesha, "Are you dead, my love?"
The liontauress answers Rakeesh with a sweet smile. In that moment, his hope that one day he might be free of both Avoozl and Vanion, that he might one day leave Rhy'Din and return to Tarna and the arms of his beloved wife, vanishes - snuffed out by the heavy weight of reality.
"It was a plague that came from the eastern wild. Many died", she answers him, as she peers deep into his old, brown eyes. "It was not painful, Rakeesh. I am safe now. I wait for you, in another world."
Anger gives the liontaur's voice strength, "I am tired, Kreesha. A monster has gripped my soul, and I am tired of fighting. I want - need - to be with you. I need peace."
Kreesha responds firmly, with a strength and courage that Rakeesh has long loved about her, "No. Your work is not done yet, my love. And you must not see this man you seek for help. Even now, I can sense the demon inside of you stirring, aching to take control again. The only way to destroy him, to protect this city and be its hero, is through sacrifice. You must destroy his phylactory, at any cost. Can you do this?"
The wind howls as it sweeps across the plains, but the warmth from Kreesha's magic lends strength to the Paladin. After a minute of silence, the two lovers simply staring into each others' eyes beneath the light of two moons, Rakeesh answers her, "Yes." He swallows then, and adds, burying his heartache deep within his gut, "I miss you, my Queen."
"And I, you, my brave King." Kreesha leans in, then, and Rakeesh closes his eyes to accept her ghostly kiss. He feels nothing against his lips, but remembers a time when they sat beneath the sun of Tarna on a warm spring day; the liontauress had told him that she was heavy with his child, and bereft of words, they embraced and kissed with the sky and the Gods watching.
When Rakeesh opens his eyes, she is gone, and so is her warmth. He can feel Vanion's darkness growing inside him once again. Steeling himself, he departs for the city. Time goes by like an avalanche, hurried and wreckless, and he ignores the faces of peasants, urchins, gawking bystanders, as he weaves through the city streets and towards Overlord's Isle.
I will not fail, Kreesha. And when this is done, I will be at your side once again. I promise you that.
It is when he is upon the small ferry boat, crossing over to the Isle where Vanion's phylactery is hid, that Rakeesh's promise becomes a lie. It is there, that the Sorcerer takes control of the Paladin's body once again. Rakeesh feels hopeless and angry as his mind is devoured by the strength of the necromancer's dark power, half-way across the water that leads to the Overlord's Manor.
Before the shadows of his own subconscious swallow him, Rakeesh holds onto one last, lingering memory, in hopes that it will give him strength yet: Kreesha's gentle smile and warrior's gaze there, upon the plains, as she names him her King.
Three nights have passed since Rakeesh Sah Tarna was defeated by Rand al'Tan, and lost the title of Overlord. The months of his combated climb and defense at the top of the sport had given him time to create resources and a home for himself, though, and he was ready to push on to the next phase of his plan.
The beast waits for the Mouth of Shadows in an abandoned warehouse in the Dockside District; he is impatient, but the master thief and gang lord has never let him down in the past. It is just past the hour of midnight when the Mouth reaches him, appearing in the shadows of the cobweb-riddled room.
"You will find your requests well met, each and every one, Drakhar", the small, compact man says as he steps out into the dim moonlight that filters in through a large hole in the roof. In his hands is a wicked-looking sword, the sort that honorable men would not wield in battle. "May I present to you, the last of the demon-blades of Shakira, from the Black Market. It was not easy to steal this, my friend."
The liontaur reaches out and takes the blade from the Mouth, examining it carefully. "Very good work. And the Overlord's Manse? Have you and your men properly cleaned out any hints of dark magic from my stay?", the Sorcerer asks of the thief, casually, as he observes the old runes cast into the steel flat of the sword in his hands.
"We have, Drakhar. The new Overlord will not be prying into your affairs further", the thief answers while idly tracing his thumb across a scar that runs the length of his right jaw. "Your cost for my services will be, as always, information."
The beast growls, quietly, then retorts, "Very well. Get on with it."
"When last you paid me, you told me of your design to rule this city. Most ambitious, Drakhar. What now for you?", the Mouth asks, an air of caution in his tone. The thief knows well who he is dealing with, and what the Sorcerer is capable of.
"Patience is a virtue, master thief. I will rule Rhy'Din, yet. Power is my birthright. But first, I shall attend some more, shall we say, petty business", the beast purrs his answer to the Mouth, still eyeing the soul-drinking blade of the Cat Demoness, Shakira.
"Such as?", the Mouth pushes for specifics.
"There are those who have opposed me at every turn. Embarrassed me. In some ways, defeated me. I am going to ruin them, one by one, in spirit and in battle. I will turn the city against them, turn them against themselves, and they will be destroyed", the words trickle with a sinister, calculated coldness from the beast's mouth.
The thief shifts, looking uncomfortable at the response. Still, he presses further, "And who are the unlucky ones, Drakhar? I must be certain to avoid business dealings with them."
Finally, the Sorcerer raises his gaze from the blade in his hands and lets his chilling stare settle upon the Mouth of Shadows, his thief consort. Quietly, he hisses, "Candy Hart. Matthew Simon and his entire cursed family. And then, when the time is right, the upstart Overlord - Rand al'Tan. I will shatter them in every way that I can, all the while playing the hero. And then, I will rule this backwater Nexus city. One thing at a time, effendi. One thing at a time."
Somewhere else in the Dockside District, an old woman wielding only a heavy leather purse is fending off a pair of muggers with her super-human strength. Rhy'Din is a strange city, filled with strange denizens. Despite all of its chaos, by some miracle the Nexus City continues to thrive, to survive its threats, retaining its great freedoms and cultural diversity.
Meanwhile, within the abandoned warehouse, Vanion Shadowcast informs the Mouth of Shadows how he intends to change all of that, in time. The master thief listens, uneasily, as he always does - collecting Rhy'din's whispers and secrets, while making plans to ensure his own survival.
Somewhere within a claustrophobic cave lit by a dozen torches that rise from the sands, the Paladin lies shackled and bound to a great stone table. For a moment, he fights against his bonds. Yet, the barbed rope flays both flesh and fur; and so, he remains quiet as the others speak around him from their seats.
"I do not think that we need to worry ourselves too much over Candy Hart. I've beaten her body, and though she may still harbor her childish attitude, I do not believe her to be the same woman she was a year ago. Or even six months ago. The Hydra Tournament will be my coup de grace against the girl", a dark elf speaks across the liontaur strapped to the table, his words filled with a smooth, confident venom.
On the other side of the table, a dark-skinned woman wearing a robe that seems to be made of basalt and inferno runs her hand through her stony hair. As she does so, her dark, basalt hair turns a molten red, and begins to flow wildly down her back.
"Your conventions are boring me, Vanion. While you dawdle at your revenge against Candy, what of Matthew Simon and IceDancer? And Rand al'Tan, he has joined your dueling team now? Haven't you sworn to destroy him as well?", FireStar retorts, her sultry alto occasionally crackling like the embers of a campfire.
"Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, they say. Rand will get what is coming to him. I have learned that patience is nearly as great an asset as Power in Rhy'Din", Vanion answers to FireStar, while letting the long fingers of his right hand spider across one of Rakeesh's bound paws.
The liontaur lets his gaze drift over to the one wall of the cave that he can see from his captive position. There, old paintings stretch the length of the rocky wall. The old beast's eyes fixate on one such painting at first, depicting an armored liontaur standing at the top of a great pyramid; there, he wields a large sword engulfed in blue light against a lizard-faced demon holding a staff. Rakeesh remembers that day - when he renounced his throne to chase after the Demon-Wizard that escaped him to wage war against the liontaur's nation of Tarna. It was the day that he stepped onto the path of the Paladin, over fifty years ago.
"I am a fickle being by nature, Vanion. I chose you, because of your propensity for destruction. Do not disappoint me", FireStar warns the dark elf as she lays her fiery hands across her lap.
"You will taste blood and wood soon enough, spirit", Vanion quickly explains. "Simon will know pain and fear like that which he has never before. You need a careful bearer, one who can walk amongst guardians and still feed the flames in the witching hours of the night. Giving yourself to Anubis once again will only bore you."
"Perhaps. As I've said before, I am a fickle being", FireStar purrs, coyly.
"Well, then, we should give you a snack. What do you think, oh loud and over-zealous one?", the Necromancer shifts the conversation to his side, where a massive Fire Elemental wearing a suit of red-hot steel scalemail sits upon a tiny stone stool far too small for a monster of its size.
"Fire!", the Fire Elemental growls in barely passable speech, before it rises to its feet and slams both of its gauntleted fists upon the edge table that Rakeesh is tied to. "Burn. Burn. Now!"
"Ah, fire. Burn, burn - now. How eloquent!", Vanion repeats mockingly to FireStar. The proximity of the Fire Elemental to the captive liontaur sears the beast's flesh.
Rakeesh attempts to ignore the pain, his eyes shifting to another painting upon the cave wall. This new ancient wall art shows an older story yet, its ink more faded than the others; a young liontaur child stands behind three liontaur warriors armed with spears. The child points at another child, a human thief whose arms are filled with treasure, cornered by the guards. Behind the still figures looms a great statue of the Goddess Sekhmet, two torches set before either of her leonine paws. Rakeesh remembers this, too: the day that he betrayed his best young friend to the temple guards - the day that he pushed Ad Avis down the path of sorcery and destruction, a path that would eventually consume him. The price of justice and honor was often nearly more than Rakeesh's heart could take.
"Do not dismiss the Fire Elemental's power, Vanion. We are stronger for it", FireStar chides the Necromancer, while casting a sympathetic glance to the fiery simpleton.
"Burn! Burn lots!", the Elemental roars as he grabs a hold of Rakeesh's bad leg, the one poisoned by the Demon-Wizard all of those years ago. The liontaur howls in pain, through his muzzle, as flesh begins to melt away at the contact.
"My, my, how terribly you protest!", FireStar bulks at the Paladin's whine, though a cruel grin curls one corner of her molten lips as she watches him burn.
"Is it just me, or is it getting too crowded in here?", Vanion laughs in a lyrical accent so elvish, it would be a beautiful sound if it were not for the meaning behind it; instead, it echoes off of the cramped cave walls and fills Rakeesh with dread. The dark elf licks his lips as he turns his undead gaze towards the bound beast.
The liontaur steels himself and shifts his stare from the three spirits of destruction surrounding him back to the cave wall once again. In fresher ink, a painting depicts a story from some ten years ago: the night that the Paladin left his world behind to banish the Dark God Avoozl - the night that Rakeesh appeared, shivering, on the floor of the Arena in Rhy'Din. The aging liontaur in the painting stands before a great cave, whose stalagmites and stalactites formed a menacing maw, beside a blonde liontauress; she holds a sapphire-adorned staff to her side, and the warrior beside her holds her tightly. By the hundreds, painted above the cave and liontaurs, an army of tiny figures battle for the fate of another world.
Tears form in the corner of the old Paladin's eyes, and he whispers a muffled word, "Kreesha."
The others do not pay him any attention. FireStar moans in pleasure, her eyes rolling back into her head. Watching her, Vanion smiles broadly, showing his vampiric fangs. Then, he notes, "It seems as though you are enjoying my gift to you, FireStar."
"Burn! Humans, scream! Good!", the Fire Elemental howls, now running around the table in circles, its arms dragging upon the earth below it like a cave man's.
The Necromancer's sing-songy laugh tickles the room once more, before he adds, "I could not have said it better myself, Ellie. Does he mind if I call him Ellie?"
Before FireStar, still immersed in some unseen pleasure, can answer, the Paladin snaps its bonds with all of his reserves of strength. Rakeesh feels the bite of the barbed binding, but he has felt greater pain before. Faster than any of the three can react, the liontaur rolls off of the table and flips it over with a massive heave, causing the three spirits to scatter. With a leonine leap, he flees the cave in one sudden bound, springing through its shadowy entrance.
A moment later, Rakeesh awakes, in control of his body. He immediately wishes he had stayed asleep; he lies in the middle of an orphanage, bodies lying about him. Fire dances hungrily up the drapes and walls, devouring those that still are alive enough to scream. Too weak to do more than crawl, the beast slinks from the burning home and out into the street.
Under the midnight moonlight, he vomits onto the curb. His entire body shakes. He lifts his head up to whisper a prayer to Sekhment for the dead and the dying, for himself and for Rhy'Din. He asks for the strength to find someone who can help him. He cries out for his victims to receive justice.
A moment later, his prayer unfinished, he re-appears - bound to the stone table within his mind. FireStar lingers, bent over him, her flesh now cool and entirely stony. "Shh", she whispers like fire into his ear, as she slips the gag from the liontaur's mouth. "You are only hurting yourself when you fight back, you know."
"Where is th'bastard? Where is Vanion?", Rakeesh chokes out, meekly.
FireStar answers quietly, her enchanting gaze locked onto the old beast's stare, "Out. Likely, he's playing the part of you to the people that you hold dearest. I will admit, his skill at fooling them impresses and intrigues me." Then, she leans down further, her basalt hands brushing up against the beast's exposed torso and chest, "But, as amusing as watching Vanion puppeteer your body can be, you truly serve me no purpose. I know that you are in pain, and I know that you hate yourself. If you'd like, I will end it all for you right now. You have but to say the word, and I will give you peace."
Many thoughts scream within Rakeesh's mind at once, filling the cave with a cacophony of pain and desperation; nearly all of the voices seek release and eternal rest. Sweat drenches down the prisoner's furry face as he struggles to find the right words to answer FireStar.
Finally, he spits his answer back at the spirit, summoning his liontaur's pride, "Is your plan to talk me to death? Go to Hell, you dancing, singing, camel-faced firefly. I grow stronger every day."
"Very well. You will be begging for my aid before the summer ends, though, I can promise you that ... Paladin", the molten woman warns after a few moments of being taken aback by Rakeesh's reaction. Then, she turns to walk away, leaving the beast alone in the cave - wondering if his bluff worked; in his heart, Rakeesh knows that his time is running out, and most of him desires nothing more than to embrace the Void.
Weakly, the beast lets his head roll to his right side so that he may stare at the cave wall once again. He silently regards at the oldest of the paintings here; the art shows a newborn liontaur cub being held up, by a liontauress priestess, to bathe in the twinkling lights of strange constellations - and a large, orange moon.
Born beneath the Harvest Moon, Rakeesh has always known that he will suffer great hardships before he may find peace. Left, forlorn in the cave, the beast promises himself that before he dies, he will bring the hammer of justice down upon those that have caused so much pain in his name.
It is that promise that gives him the strength to make it through the long and lonely night.
[OOC: Twitter is the best way to stay in touch. <3]
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