A great battle unfolds, stretching to the horizons of a bleak panorama. Overhead, the writhing forms of huge dragons desperately battle creatures that defy description, their silhouettes grotesque and contorted. Horror grows as the screams and shrieks penetrate the core of those that are within hearing distance, seeming to pull their very life blood away. Soon in the midst of the raging battle the shift disconcerting and abrupt. Again, the dragons battle their fiendish foes one of the hideous beings was mortally wounded, and stand in horror, unable to move. The colossal form comes barreling down from above, flailing and screaming in rage. It disappears into the maw of molten metal seething in the volcano, dying frenzy slowly stilling and become a part of the magma surrounding it.
Two forces stand arrayed on a field of battle. On one side warriors, banners and colors representing a great nation fluttered in the wind. Scattered amongst the warriors one could make out other professions, clerics, rangers, mages, and even a handful of empaths. On the other is massed a horde of undead beasts. Zombies, specters, wailing banshees in chariots drawn by nightmares, and skeletons of every beastly shape imaginable. As the undead advance upon the field the battle goes into full swing. Hundreds fall in the first clash, but neither side seems to gain an upper hand as the battle progresses. Empaths move up and down the line, dragging the wounded and dead off the field. Those they can save, are and they return to battle. Those who cannot be saved are left for dead. The clerics move up and down the line supporting the army with their magic, too busy to tend the dead. Slowly a slight shift in the battle, and it seems the living are advancing ever so slowly.
The living slowly advance back into castle walls. In another direct were two lone figures ran from a handful of undead spear carriers. A young woman with copper toned hair and a slightly older man with short cropped blackened hair. The young woman cradled something close to her chest as they scrambled towards a side door leading into one of the towers. The man shouts something, urging the woman to hurry away from the battle but in the end he finds his arms filled with the bundle as the young woman shook her head to the man. With a saddened look in her earthen eyes she begged him to hurry. He was hesitant but with a loud sob he did as he was told moved forward with the bundle, the door spotted as he darted for the wooden portal just as an undead animal, apparently a dog, grabbed the hem of the woman's garbs.
A startled cry passed her lips and she'd turn this way and that, yanking to rip her robes. It gave ample time for the undead spear men to get just that much closer, their steel tipped spears kissing and ripping at her flesh. She managed away and ran for the door which she would almost fall through. Stumbling, she would press her back towards the door to help the man close it. It was then a spearman thrust a spear through the crevice, catching the woman and piercing through her lower back. Her eyes widened and the young man shouted out, one of his legs rising to snap the spear with his foot and the door was secured by the two. The cry of angered undead on the other side could be heard as the young man shuffled the bundle between his arms, helping the wounded woman who was staggering to gain breath.
Waking from her slumber with a violent jerk from her place beside the fire she gasped and struggled for breath. Hand lowering against her torso she struggled to sit up. A dream? No..something far more real. A memory of long ago and a duty she nearly failed in.
Lifting chocolate hued eyes she looked around. Nearby the dwarven king was snoring away like a bellowing bear and not far off from him on the other side of the fire was Brindle, the elder man tossing and turn in attempts to get some rest. She could only guess how much twisting and turning she did in her own slumber. She knew that it had to be hard on the old man. His very source of focus, the child Mira, having been spirited away from him. From them. The entire group. That was their course. To retrieve this child. And even if it was to be her last breath to see it done, the child would be returned safely to Brindle and Jaxe.
With the memory set dream fading away, she turned her gaze to seek out the other, Jaxe, who like herself tended to stick to the shadows. Their surroundings were dark and unfriendly, unknown figures flew high above, circling like foreshadowing death. And the mincing overview of green outstretched fingers of The Veil.
It was here upon the nameless mount that a long forgotten keep, the names of those who had built it lost amid the passing of seasons, lay partially buried under the snow. The stones black against the winter white, the once mighty walls that had been undefeated by war, now peaked out from their frozen prison. Broken and crooked fingers pointed accusingly to the sky in silent torment of the bleached land that surrounded them.
Not all of the keep had fallen to the test of time. A large tower stood, a testament to those artisans that had toiled under bitter conditions. And it was upon those winding stone steps that led to its perch, a large circular room could be found. A lone window frosted over, but still not enough to keep a faint glow of light from illuminating what lay inside.
It was here among great portraits of battles won, of victorious champions standing bloody but unbowed, that a throne carved from a great block of black marble resided. Here, within the hallowed halls and silent whispers of time lost, sat a massive figure.
Uncut long black mane curtaining down over broad muscled shoulders hid the face of the head bowed. Bare of skin except that of a fur loincloth and tethered sandals, the rise and fall of life could barely be seen. The man-child sat like a king, strong fingers curled around the end of the armrests like large spidery legs in the throws of death.
For untold years he had been undisturbed. Left alone. And rightly so. For the distant rumblings and the far-and-away dark memories of the 'Bleak War' had long since been forgotten. Put away like the playthings of a boy long since having grown into adulthood. A rest that had gone undisturbed....
....but in the dark recesses of his mind, something stirred. A distant sound that caused his even breathing to catch. A deep intake of breath taken sending hungry mice to scurry in all directions, eager to hide.
A rumbling of siege engines, and the thudding twang of catapults interrupted his intoxicating feeling of peace. From a far distance, a place in which he could not fathom, his name was called. Within the deep recesses of his mind, the man-child heard. A voice familiar beckoned.
Anger surged like a violent sea, a tempest wind that cared not what damage it would do. A resting hand came awake, moving with reassurance to that which lay over his corded thighs. Strong fingers curled around the thick wooden haft of a immense curved double bladed axe.
The bowed head slowly began to rise, eyes blacker than that of a open grave, slowly came awake. He knew the voice and found in it distaste of having been disturbed. He had been called from his slumber and there would be a heavy price to be paid for the intrusion.
So be it.
Rising to his full height, the very air seemed to still as if the winter landscape waited. At the base of the throne in which he had been seated, a hand reached down to retrieve from the cold stone floor a silver horned helm. Dented and faded by the passing of ages, it was righted upon his head.
Set loose from his mountain keep, the man-child braved the cold, footfalls lumbering through the knee high deep snow. As he faded from view, the wind began to howl bringing with it the heavy fall of a winter snow. It would take time to get to where he was going.
But once he did, there would come bedlam and carnage. There would come the pleading of the fearing and the cries of the dying. Yes, a price would be extracted for being rousted from his sleep. Even as he vanished from sight, he heard his name called and he remembered.....
'Masu, the legendary Man Of the Axe'.
And he had been set free to walk the Realm of the living.
Kaylin, the young woman who's talent went far and beyond what he could have imagined. A warrior woman who's bravery he'd come to admire. Brindle, the elder of the girl Mira who'd been taken against her will. It had taken its toll. The slender man shifted uncomfortably in his rest stirred by memories of the loss of what he held most precious. A moan slipped from his lips, the spindly legs kicking out at something churning within his dreams.
There came a sudden flash of lightening soon to be followed by a peeling clap of thunder. The ground itself shook from the titanic boom that reverberated off the black mountains of the Jagged Peaks.' His calloused hand went immediately to the wide leather belt around his waist, a firm grip taken of the knotted black leather handle. A lion's expression was framed by a great brown mane of hair.
Once more he'd been called from his mountain fortress of Black Rock. The mountain home had been at peace for many years and had been undisturbed by war. A grimace at the memory of the messenger that had come bearing a 'gift'. Long had it been since the race of Men had stepped upon the high mountain. The one delivering the missive looked ill at ease.
A gruff chuckle, Sirhan's eyes twinkling with the sight of dread on the messenger's face. Sweat beaded his brow as he faced a circle of armed dwarves who seemed none to pleased at his arrival. Slowly the dwarven king made his way from those who slept around him, toward the great greenish wall that was the Veil.
As he neared he could feel the humming of it's power, could feel his shirt threatening to be torn from him, the hair on his arms standing on end, but most of all, he could feel the warning of doom should he come nearer. It did not differ from those who would battle for the good, or those who's wickedness hinged on destruction and death.
And now, the barrier was fading slow but sure.
Behind it were the things of nightmares. Brought to life to torment the Lands'. The Dark Horde. Defeated on the battlefield, for on that fateful day, the grasslands had turned slippery and was for as far as the eye could see, stained in crimson. Men lay beside dwarf and elf alike. And among the many, tattered forms of things that flew and crept upon the ground.
Those that had created the barrier had misjudged the fortitude of the things behind it. The one who had led them was slain during the battle, fierce and unforgiving it was. But it had come to Its end. Those that had not been killed were dispatched to this desolate land. Bitter and foreboding, the ground littered with rocks and dry soil. A proper and fitting residence for the evil things that were imprisoned behind the Veil.
But now it was faltering. The message sent to him revealed that another had begun a ruthless rule within the many caverns located in the mountains. Mindless it was not. It calculated, anticipated and plotted for it's escape as well as those that remained of the Dark Horde. As Sirhan stood, he knew that it would be a matter of time before it completely collapsed.
And once again great armies would rise and remembered champions be called.
A gruff shake of his head as he sought to clear his mind. There were other matters to consider at this moment. Jaxe had slipped into one of the tears of the Veil along with the swampcat Timber. Gone in search of the elder's daughter Mira to bring her out alive. A daunting task even for the unequaled skills of the armsmaster.
Now there was nothing to do but to wait. Sitting upon the ground, the great war hammer set across his lap, Sirhan, king of the mountain fortress of Black Rock would wait. Even as he did, he could hear the growling of things unseen prowling along the inside of the Veil, looking for weaknesses.
They would find him, and those with him, waiting.
Tearing her eyes from the eerie portal she turned her chocolate stare at the dwarf who stirred. For a moment both looked upon the frustrated Brindle before the ranger slowly stood from her place only to encounter a sensation she was slowly growing accustomed to. Plunged back into a pain that tore not only at her physical being but at her spiritual. It was no ordinary pain but death's threatening grip to prove to her that this time she would not so easily escape it's call.
Calvidor's words echoed in her mind as she looked towards to the skies, observing the lingering shadows of who knows what. "Why do you give your life for someone who you barely know? Why do you give your life for a human child who probably won't even remember you? Why do you travel with humans who push you even while you are wounded? They don't trust you nor care.."
But he knew the answer. In many kingdoms, she held the old code. Sworn to valor. A heart that knows only virtue. A blade that defends the weak. A might that upholds the helpless. Words that speak only truth. Wrath undoes the wicked. That is the code of their lives..
It was a code that seemed to be dying quite swiftly in this time and age. Which is why Calvidor was so confused as to why this skilled woman would so readily give up her life. But he also knew that in many kingdoms she strolled the streets as a proud knight. It was in many kingdoms that she lived as a guardian of life. In Eriador especially where her skills landed her in the position of First Knight under the great queen. Eriador's who's lands now laid ruin thanks to the king's sibling who took his place after he died at war.
The lands now laid untouched by hands of any race, nature's grasp having flooded over that which was once war ridden lands. A splendor that now only the elven that once resided in Eriador now watched over, waiting for their rightful queen to return.
They were not pleased she brought strangers to the lands but rest is what they had needed and peaceful rest at that. She still struggled with it but in the end, she still saw Mira's capture as her own fault. She should have kept a better eye on the child. On the area. No. She shouldn't have even brought them there...
Her lips curved into a frown as her eyes lowered and silently she strolled from the campfire. Whispered steps were nothing but shadows upon the ground as the ranger walked a parameter around the campsite and her companions that were in rest.
In time she would have to pull Brindle aside to let the elder man know..to know that once this quest was over that they would be leaving one person short..
Soldiers in polished chainmail walked the ramparts, silver helms polished and reflecting back the brightness of the sun. Standing free from the rest was a tall man, a spy glass placed over one eye as he studied the winding road leading up to the great steel doors that led into the sprawling kingdom's main square. The Watchman' at his post, eyes as sharp as a hawk, saw tranquility and a land at rest. Satisfied, he stepped away from his perch to send a runner to the castle. Prince Arlin would be informed that all was well.
And it had been for many years. The citizens that called Armengar home had come to find stability once more. Children laughed and played on the cobblestone streets where horse drawn carriages going to market slowly made their way. Shops were open, the owners sweeping out front to keep those in competition for their services honest. Wives hung clothes and shared with their neighbors the latest gossip. The hem of their dresses caressed by the meandering warmth of the day as another garment was hung to be dried.
The fields were being tended by skilled hands. Bundles of corn and wheat had been gathered for storing against the coming winter season. Barrels of grapes were being prepared to be crushed into wine, taken from the many vineyards that were planted throughout the kingdom.
The echo of the blacksmiths hammers could be heard ringing out as they pounded against molten steel. Calloused hands lifted and fell with great skill as Armengar stood undefeated and a jewel of determination within the Realm.
From any vantage point one could look up and see at its zenith, the castle in which Prince Arlin resided. Magnificent were the stone towers that were constructed to be seen for miles on end. It was there that the hope of all rested. Many knew of the prince, but all remembered King Arless who had given his life upon the killing field during the battle of the Bleak War. The pain of such a loss had taken time, for all had loved the king. A honorable man who only sought peace with other kingdoms in other lands.
Memories that cut as deeply as a knife, but at the passing of time, the pain lessened. Now, there were good times to be had, especially at one particular tavern called the 'Black Roost'. It was here that laughter could be heard day and night, a place where ale and strong mead was poured freely to anyone seeking respite from the day. The proprietor of the property was Lill. A short plump woman who's ruddy cheeks were always stained crimson, and who's smile could light up a room. Which it did often.
Here is where the soldiers came, the brave men that served in the legion that had become famous. 'The Steel Lions,' they came to be known. And at their charge, Sir Garland, a bear of a man who's bravery equaled few. Even now there were paintings that displayed him upon horseback, gauntlet hand raised, fingers closed around the hilt of a long sword. Underneath these was was the lilting tune of a minstrel's flute. The man dressed in colorful garb, played wonderfully.
Not that many noticed because sitting in their mists was a large man, his beard as black as pitch, and his laughter contagious. Dressed in a red coat, the brass buttons at a high shine, and the shirt worn beneath it as white as winter snow. Wull Tanner, captain of the fabled 'Surfbison', smote the table with the palm of his hand as another joke was told. Members of his crew sat around the table, most taking hard pulls of the strong ale delivered to them by Lill.
Those who lived in the kingdom had heard of the captain. Stories speaking of him having somehow played a key role in ending the Bleak War. Most thought that impossible seeing as soldiers had died in defense of Armengar. But, those that REALLY knew him also knew that there was a possibility that the stories were true. Wull Tanner was a man not to be trifled with.
Many agreed that he had the fastest ship on the seas. A design he created himself. The black hulled ship, though large, could slice through the waters like a hot knife through butter. The men that sailed with him were strong and fearless and would follow Tanner to the grave if called upon. Though a imposing figure, many found him a likable fellow, especially the young children and elders.
Every time he docked at the harbor, the talk was of Captain Tanner. The news flourished and ran like wildfire throughout all of Armengar. The youngsters would wait at the 'Great Alcove' to catch him coming through the large tunnel that lead through the mountain to the bluff where the sea and the land met.
Watchmen stood at their posts, high upon cliffs, watching out over the harbor. With them were archers, men trained in the use of the bow. On the docks, swordsmen paraded themselves wanting to be seen. That to discourage those seeking to advance their unscrupulous businesses. The City Watch had enough trouble already dealing with the elusive group known as the 'Underhands'.
But on this day, Captain Tanner and his men were having a hoot. There were loud boasts being banded about along with the 'Clack-Clack-Clack' of dice ready to be tossed. A small group huddled near the back of the tavern where they hoped the ever observant eyes of Lill would not find them out. Oblivious to all this, Wull wrapped his fingers around a wooden tankard readying for another round of ale.
No one noticed the opening of the tavern door. Against the backdrop of a orange and crimson horizon, hovering over it, the inky pool of evening
heralding its arrival, a slender form wearing a earthen colored robe entered. The hood drawn high, the face hidden accomplishing it's goal. A quiet study was taken of the common room and like a hungry cat spying out a mouse, a fixed gaze fell upon the captain of the Surfbison.
Slithering around those lost in conversation like a snake through tall grass, the traveler came to stand before the seafaring group. There was a momentary pause as Wull lowered his tankard, dark eyes measuring the newcomer with a quirk of a brow. Hands went to the hilts of various weapons well hidden. Tanner's hand rose commanding the sailors to stay where they were. There was something oddly familiar about this particular moment.
In the back of his mind, something was trying desperately to free itself. A memory of some sort. All those sitting at the table were watching, exchanging glances of uncertainty. The face beneath the hood could barely be seen, but there was little doubt that a woman stood in their midst.
Suddenly, that something broke free. Through the shadows of his mind eye, a realization came. And, if on cue, the woman slowly removed something from a sleeve of her robe. Holding it in both hands, she bowed slightly and offered it to Tanner. It was a rolled parchment. The dark red wax seal unbroken. Wull pushed back his chair and stood, his shadow falling over her like a fisherman's net.
With a nod of acceptance, he took it in his own hands. Straightening, the traveler's eyes caught and held his own. The face was oval and breathtakingly beautiful. A small ringlet of black hair rested upon the woman's forehead. A slender finger pushing it aside, a sad smile, and as quickly as she had appeared, she slipped silently from the room. The only sign that she had ever been was the closing of the tavern door in the shadow of her departure.
Slowly he sat. He KNEW what he held. One had been delivered to him before.
At the very beginning of the of the The Bleak War.
Managing to slip past those that waited in the darkness near the Veil Jaxe, a silhouette himself, pressed tightly against the wall. There was no mistaking the foul smell wafting from the lower levels. The further he went the more distasteful the venture. Still Mira was here somewhere but the question begged,was she was still alive?
Soon he found himself at a crossroad. One direction heading off to the left the other heading off to the right. Dropping into a crouch he placed a finger to the hard earth, gray eyes measuring the tracks that led off toward the east. Without a sound he made his way ivory hilt daggers drawn.
Halfway during his descent he heard a sound heavy and resonate against the ground. Eyes narrowed, he found the shadows and waited. Soon within the russet glow of flames a large shape took form. On all fours it came, reptilian head low, a long body on short legs it sluggishly made its way up from the depths.
Eyes black as pitch gazed unblinkingly. Jaxe slowed his breathing, the knives adjusted in his hands measuring their balance. He hadn't seen a Blood Hunter' since the Bleak War. They usually traveled in packs, but this one was large, one that led.
The tunnel was wide enough. The hunter was near the furthest wall, not known much for smell but it's eyesight was beyond reproach. One had to stand perfectly still. It came on, the long tail propelling its impressive weight. Jaxe held his breath. The ground beneath him reverberating with each step as it grew larger the closer it came.
It was abreast of him, the skin knotted and brown in color. It thundered past without so much as a look in his direction, the shadows having done him a service. He watched it as it disappeared from view. Without a second glance he crept quickly along now knowing that the path he took was the correct one.
Soon the tunnel's corridor began to widen and in doing so, at the furthest end, was a closed wooden door. Made of heavy timber no doubt taken from the many dead trees dotted along the peaks, It stood tall and foreboding. Placing a ear against it he listened.
Nothing could be heard. One knife was slipped within his black shirt, the hand now free eagerly testing the worn steel handle. It gave way easily. Pushing open the door just enough to squeeze through, he scanned the interior. It was a large circular room, the ceiling high enough to be painted in shadows. Banners of dark purple lined the walls, and in the center of the room was a metal cage.
Inside something moved. A sound of muffled crying followed by deep sobs cut through the silence. There was the flickering of torchlight, the orange and red flames casting dancing shadows against the walls. Jaxe let his eyesight adjust to the gloom. With swift movements he came nearer the cage stopping a short distance away.
It was Mira.
A low whistle brought her soft crying to a end. She stirred, at first reluctantly. Through the strands of black hair that curtained her eyes, she gazed at him as if she were dreaming. Her cheeks stained by tears, she was about to speak but he quickly placed a finger to his lips. A shake of his head as he came close.
In his lifetime there had been little to care about. But here at this moment, in someway, he felt his life complete. She had come to be the
ONLY person he could trust. In the darkness that comprised his life, for the first time he felt a warmth inside.
So this is what love felt like.
He'd come to be protective of the girl though not his own, but she had shown great courage during the Bleak War. Not understanding much then, she was now older. And he knew how much she cared for him. Showing the thinnest of a smiles, he reached in hand cradling her chin in reassurance. But there was little mistaking the look of horror in her eyes.
In all this he knew that his journey here had been much too easy. Discarding what it could mean, he moved around to the cage door. It was unlocked. Without pausing he threw it open and swept Mira up from where she lay. Just as he did so, from behind the banners, movement. The room suddenly came alive with heavy grunting and deep growls.
From the ceiling came the shrill sound of a 'Scrull'. The leathery flapping of it's wings sending it hurtling down from the darkness above.
"Jaxe!" Mira's voice was urgent as a Reaper' stepped in from the shadows. It's expression was one of delight, the mouth revealing rows of sharp teeth as it swayed back and forth on it's haunches the pain of hunger driving it to madness. A 'Blood Hunter' moved from a darkened alcove, the black forked tongue testing the air finding it tainted with new blood.
There would be little time. He set Mira down his focus now on what must be done. They would not seek her out but seek out the threat. And he was that threat. Jaxe slowed his breathing, the world around him orbiting as he spread his arms holding the long knives. Razor sharp, the edges glinted wickedly against the backdrop of torches.
In that moment he found what he'd been looking for. For years he had yet to find his equal, but here, three of the most deadliest of the Dark Horde now circled. As he turned he watched them one at a time. There was no mistaking the look of conquest, the look of victory, that each carried.
Mira's eyes radiated fear. They had taken her prisoner, tormented her at every turn. And now she stood staring at death. Jaxe had come to her aid, but it was a trap. She had seen him do the impossible, but this! She stood unable to move, her muscles would not obey her mind as they urged her to run.
The Reaper came at her. It's bark of madness ending the tense silence as muscled long arms catapulted it across the floor. Mira screamed just as something black streaked past....
....Timber, all teeth and power, crashed into the Reaper sending it backward. The swampcat hissed a warning, its yellow eyes narrowed as it's muzzle drew back. Jaxe hadn't forgotten about the cat. The rare creature able to blend in perfectly with it's surroundings had been following him all the time.
"Mira, leave now."
Her voice rang out in a plea even as the Reaper righted itself, a howl of glee sent skyward. Pink skin bulged as cords of sinew underneath flexed. "Jaxe....no! We have to hurry!" Her eyes wide even as Timber came to stand in front of her protectively, his head lowered as he prepared himself for the Reaper's next charge.
From up above the Scrull swooped down, it's lithe form reaching with talons made for slashing flesh from bone. Jaxe heard and spun the dance of Death as blades sliced through its forearm and thigh. It cried out in pain swinging back up into the embrace of the darkness.
"Your grandfather waits for you." In that quick moment he looked at her, eyes soft. "I will follow." The Blood Hunter sprung forward, the very floor sent shaking from its charge. The armsmaster dove to his right even as its putrid breath swept over him. Rolling over he came quickly into a defensive crouch.
A meaningful look was sent in Timber's direction, a unspoken command that the he understood. The swampcat began nudging Mira to the door with it's nose all the while cautiously watching the Reaper. He'd never broken his promise to her and with that knowledge she turned and ran as fast she could.
The Blood Hunter's charge sent it past Jaxe, the heavy weight refusing to slow even as it tried to stop. The large body hit the wall sending down a rain of dust and debris. It rolled onto it's side and with great effort stood once more. Instantly Jaxe sprang forward, his steps fluid as he darted past the Reaper, the twin blades slicing along it's stomach.
It roared, raking claws collecting nothing but air. It was as he hoped, a distraction. He caught sight of Mira and the cat moving out through the doorway. Turning, he faced those that hunted, his expression flat. Spinning, he was soon followed by the furious and desperate sounds of pursuit.
Brindle waited as well, the elder with his arms crossed as he patted his foot with impatience and worry. Where was the armsmaster? Where was Mira and Timber? Deep lines creased his forehead for he felt as if he'd aged more since her disappearance than he would have wished. The greenish glow of the barrier shone down on him casting him in it's powerful glow. Somewhere on the other side death was waiting. Would they, or could they, escape?
Kaylin was not far away, her own observance of what transpired hidden within the various shadows of the surrounding forest. She'd proved more than any of the small party could have hoped. Wasn't that way when troubled times fell upon the Realm? Those silent in coming of age to champion a cause not of their choosing?
Sirhan suddenly came to a abrupt halt. His attention drawn to a chorus of sounds now arising behind the protective barrier. He was about to call out to Brindle and Kaylin when suddenly a tear in the Veil appeared.
Something was coming through.
Sirhan removed his war hammer from the wide leather loop in his belt preparing to launch himself forward when the frightened face of Mira appeared. She stumbled through the narrow opening, the dwarf hurrying to catch her in her arms. She was crying now, her body shaking with fear and gratitude at finally being free.
Brindle stood frozen unable to move. To see her again, alive, was more powerful emotionally than he could have ever imagined. It felt as if life had returned to his frail form. His strength failing, he dropped to his knees, face buried in his hands as he began to weep.
In that moment he would be spared the sight coming his way.
Holding Mira, movement caught Sirhan's eye. Something else was coming through as well....
"Blood and ashes!"
Shouting a warning, the dwarf king grabbed Mira hauling her out of the way as the snarling form of Timber tumbled through. He was not alone. The large swamp cat was engaged with something that fixed itself around his body. Dry leaves exploded and a old elk tree took the brunt of the impact as the two tore at one other.
Timber was suffering from several wounds, blood seeping through ripped flesh. What grappled with him was something that resembled a insect. Though much larger. Large reflective black eyes were shadowed by large antennas. Thin wings beat desperately trying to free itself as Timber's jaws clamped down on it's neck.
"Kaylin!," Sirhan's voice rang out as he sought to comfort Mira. "Where are you girl?"
Brindle came to his feet, blue eyes blazing fury as his hand dipped into one of the many brown pouches tied to his rope belt. What looked like dust flew into the air and in a instant, flashed as bright as the sun. The whole of the glade was transformed and in that moment bedlam ensued.
Step faltering she took lean against a tree, head lowered between her shoulders as a great searing pain caused her hawk-like vision to blur. It felt like dozens of cold talons grasping and pulling at her flesh in attempts to pull her apart. Time was growing short and the coppery taste in her mouth was a sure sign of it. Rolling her tongue and head tilted she spat out. Chocolate eyes found blood staining the ground were she had spat at, black earth mingled with the vital. Entirely too short..
"Jaxe..hurry it up.."
Muscles curled when she heard her name shouted and without a second thought, she sped in hurry towards the camp. Like a breeze, she passed through the brush and treeline. Swords sang out like whistling winds as she caught sight first of Mira then Timber who seemed to be in struggle with a large insect-like creature. She tore past Brindle and Sirhan alike, low to the ground and with swords angled for ready. As she came close to Timber and his trouble both feet pressed into the ground and she swept up like a hawk taking to the air. Left sword sung out to remove the creature's outstretched wing in a single thrust. Since it was thin it didn't take much from the sharpened blade.
Body twisted like that of a cat in the air she used the force of momentum to redirect her fall onto so that she might strike the creature while not hurting the swamp cat.
"Sirhan! Leave Mira in Brindle's care and come assist! And where the hell is Jaxe?!"
It all came back to him then...like a flash of lightening giving illumination to a dark dreary sky.
The glade surrounded by dry leaves rustled against a backdrop of muffled growling and a shrill sound of desperation. One hand against the ground, the other wrapped around the wooden handle of his hammer, the dwarf king struggled to rise. His gaze singled in on Timber, the swampcat locked in battle with something that had come with him from behind the Veil.
And a maddening battle it was.
The legendary animal would not end it's fight unless it killed or was killed. Muscles flexed underneath the sleek black fur, it's eyes narrowed against the clicking of claws that sought to find a way to release it from the large cat's grasp. Sharp teeth were locked around its throat, the thick scales punctuated by the large ivory fangs. Timber would not oblige the creature's desperate plan of escape.
Shaking his head, Sirhan cast his lion's mane of hair sluggishly readying to enter the fray when a sudden blur of motion darted past. Startled and about to take a swing, which would have been too late, he watched the sprinting form of Kaylin. She was on a dead run, her hand wrapped tightly around the hilt of her sword.
The flat of the blade caught and held a ray of sunlight causing it to flash brightly signaling it's deadly intent. Her momentum carried her as the soles of her boots left the ground, and as she swept past, the sharp blade whistled through the air neatly slicing off one of the creature's wings with precision.
A hiss of pain was all Timber needed to hear. Shifting his weight he rolled over pulling his adversary beneath him and with a violent shake of his head came the sound like that of a thick tree limb being snapped in two. It's death came swiftly, it's elongated body stilled.
Brindle had long ago stopped his pursuit of entering the fray. Kaylin's shout pulling him up short, the mention of Mira's name able to cut through his anger. She managed to escape just as Jaxe had promised, and with that knowledge he wanted to destroy that which had threatened to destroy him. For if she had perished, he knew he would have too because the sadness would have been too great and the burden too heavy.
Mira gained her feet and ran to comfort Timber. He was panting heavily and several wounds were bleeding profusely. Wrapping her arms around the large cat's neck, her eyes pleadingly found Brindle.
"Gran help him...he's hurt." There was no mistaking the great sadness in her voice. There was doubt there as well. Doubt as to if Timber would somehow survive. Hasty steps led the elder to where the swampcat was laying on his side. A look of confidence glinted in his deep blue eyes now finding a spark of life after all that they had managed to survive.
"Shhh, he'll be alright," he said as he rummaged through a herbal pouch tied to his belt, "I've just the thing." A new found sense of pride for he knew he'd been useless since Mira's disappearance. He would make it up to them...all of them. As he began treating Timber's wounds, he felt a heavy hand fall upon his shoulder.
"Not now!", he grumped as he worked diligently.
"It best be now old one, if not, we will all soon die where we stand."
That caused Brindle to look up from his herbal application. He saw Sirhan looking toward the Veil and as he followed his directional gaze, his own eyes widened in shock and surprise...
The Veil was fluctuating, the greenish barrier not as strong as it had been. For now one could see faint shadows moving on the other side. A crowd of hideous faces that grinned as they looked out on the Realm and remembered the the taste of freedom. The dwarf king knew that they could not face them all and as of yet, the weapons master had not returned.
The elder felt Sirhan's calloused palm squeeze his shoulder. Brindle then looked at Mira who was staring back at him. The lack of fear in her eyes giving him a moment of wonder. She had seen much and now few things frightened her. Even the promise of death. Somehow he wanted to reassure her that everything would be alright. But in his heart he knew better.
Suddenly Timber rose up to sit, yellow eyes measured at half mast. Injuries forgotten, he looked toward the forest's edge. Sirhan, Kaylin and Brindle did likewise, each head turning not knowing what to expect. Then they saw it.
A distinct wavering of the air that sent waves like those of a placid pond surface disturbed by the dropping of a pebble. A circle that grew and then gave way to a mist that seeped through causing dew to form on the surrounding foliage.
Sirhan withdrew his hammer and Kaylin notched a arrow, eyes intent as the string bent back the bow. From the mist came a tall form draped in a robe of the darkest blue. The cowl was perched high hiding the face beneath it's shadow. The wavering of air ceased and the mist dissipated leaving the newcomer to stand before them all.
The voice was deep and resonate. "Would you not greet a old friend dwarf king?" Then looking at Brindle, "Or you elder, not offer a hand of friendship to one you know?" His attention was then directed to Kaylin. A pause before speaking as if in some way measuring her commitment to the threat of loosening her arrow.
"Steady your hand warrior woman, I am not your enemy." The power that radiated from the man could be felt from where they stood. Just like the power of the barrier, it was unmistakable. It was Mira who bravely came forward to stand before the others. A calmness found her as she gave a smile of recognition.
"Hello Zachery Roe."
Slowly her eyes swung to Mira. For but a brief moment gentleness strummed her chocolate gaze. She was glad to see the child safe. But..where was Jaxe? Worry of this answer began to fill her with dread at the worst possible scenario.
It would be the great beast's movement that drew her from her worry, eyes raised up and soon enough her bow evened out with a four-bladed arrow posed in deadly aim. Chocolate spheres stared at the man even as he took that demanding tone with her. She remained ever posed for a strike and that deadly aim would not ease until she heard Mira's honey-dew voice. The child was familiar with this one and he seemed to be familiar with those present. Didn't mean she trusted him off the bat. In fact, the bow was lowered but her fingers remained clenched to the feathered end.
A set amount of moments and the hawk-like gaze finally tore from the newer person, her gaze seeking the veil in hopes to catch a glimpse of the weapon master's return. The bow's string finally relaxed completely and the arrow was shoved back into the quiver, bow sliding along her shoulder until it rested snug in place against her shoulder blade. Fingers worked quick to find a jar of healing salve from her pouch and she moved towards the great cat. Like it or not she was going to help with his wounds. She just hoped the beast understood this as the jar's lid was removed with a bit of struggle.
Time is growing short...
It was the counsel that brought the Bleak War to it's beginning. An unfortunate set of circumstances that could have been avoided. But the taste of power and the need for control stirred warring factions within the group that had sworn to protect those less fortunate than themselves.
And it was here, upon the Jagged Peaks that the temple of the Circle had existed. And now why the blasted landscape was considered cursed land. What better place to prison the Dark Horde?
A thin smile was hidden beneath the cowl as Zachery Roe came forward to stand before girl. Dark eyes fell into remembrance of another time when he gazed on a face filled with innocence. The mage saw none of that now.
"Hello Mira. How do you fare?" His gloved hand rested on her shoulder in sympathy of what she'd seen and what she had endured. No child should be subjected to such madness.
"I'm frightened," the sniffle was sincere, her green eyes wet pools of yet unreleased tears, "and Jaxe has not returned from behind the Veil."
Sirhan came to stand beside Mira, his large hand extended in greeting but his visage grim. "I had a feeling you would find your way here. I agree with the child, but even in that we have a bigger problem."
Zachery looked past them. The green hue of the protective barrier was fading. So much so that he could see dark shapes moving along the black slopes. Glowing eyes narrowed and filled with hunger looked back at the mage. Howls of glee and grunts of triumph rang out as the Dark Horde sensed that their escape to freedom was at hand.
"And it's true...the weapons master has yet to return to us." The wavering of Sirhan's voice was not due to sadness, but a yearning anger that burned higher than a funeral pyre.
Zachery excepted the dwarf's strong grip and returned it in kind. Knowing that Sirhan's loyalty was beyond reproach, he felt the other's pain of separation from his mountain fortress of Black Rock. War brought about unwanted sacrifice and the sting of death to those held dear.
And now he was counted on as he had been before, but for how long? The passing of the seasons had taken it's toll. There was the feeling of being responsible and in truth was he not one of the ones caught up in the destruction of the Circle? But in his heart, as black as it had become, he knew it had to be done.
Kaylin gently guided Brindle from tendering Timber's wounds. She now felt like a outsider. The group had endured much. From the Great Hall and encountering the Reaper, to the ancient ruins and fighting the Scrull. Now this. A shadowed figure who knew everyone except her.
Zachery went to stand before the Veil with a look of defiance. The Old One' was correct. There was little he could do and knew immediately knew that the barrier would fail. But he could slow its process. Standing close, gloved fingers rested on the greenish hue. Even those that stood watching, hungry to get at one that had tormented them during the Bleak War, did not dare leap forward to attack.
They had seen many of their kind die a quick and terrible death, though the need to destroy drove them impulsively, there would be no commitment to self destruction. They were too close at being set loose to terrorize and feed.
Zachery felt the old power of the Circle' come to him. Threads of energy slipped out a patchwork over the Veil, white veins that pulsed with life. There were howls of dismay from the Dark Horde as the chorus of anger reached it's zenith.
A grim smile was traded with the minions as Zachery's dark brows knotted in concentration. The small group standing a short distance away marveled as the protective barrier gained in illumination. Even having seen the power of the mage many years ago, Sirhan, Mira, and Brindle stood transfixed at seeing it all over again.
"Blood and ashes," whispered the dwarf king, his gaze reflecting the immense power being unleashed.
Zachery knew it would not hold. All he had done was given them some time and he didn't know how long that would last. Stepping away, he turned to regard those waiting. The look of fear in their eyes came for all except Kaylin. Even those that knew him, quietly doubted that his power couldn't be corrupted. All those except Mira.
In truth, he held that fear as well.
It was she that came forward, her black hair falling over her shoulders, her white dress spotted by dirt. Toeing the ground with her boot she looked down biting her lower lip. The mage's thumb and forefinger lifted her chin.
"I will find him."
She nodded giving a weak smile in reply. Brindle came to stand beside Mira, the elder's blue eyes like a cloudless day beneath course white brows. "I'm surprised to see you again, in truth I thought you were dead."
Underneath pale skies Zachery's face could barely be seen, but there was no mistaking the high cheekbones and black goatee. A smile turned upside down greeted the elder. "I live Brindle though If I had my way, I would not wish it so."
They all came to gather around the mage.
"The Veil will not hold forever. Wait for me here." Saying nothing more, he turned and walked purposely toward the Veil. Slowly his body began taking on the greenish glow of barrier. Those within would not dare to attack him as he radiated the strength of the Veil itself.
Without a backward glance and captured in a blinding flash of light, he vanished as if he had never existed.
It was only when they started speaking of Jaxe that her attention seemed to be captured. Lips parting she started to speak, demanding on tagging along with the mage to retrieve the weapon master. But she was silenced by the sudden tingle at the back of her throat. Lowering her head she raised a hand to her lips and immediately started coughing into her palm. Sharp, painful coughs tightened her lungs and she found her throat coated with that familiar coppery taste.
As the mage disappeared past the veil she turned away, rolling her tongue in frustration and soon spat out the blood collected by her tongue. Tilting her head she looked but didn't turn towards the group. "While we wait, Sirhan, you should bring Mira and Timber to rest by the fire. I need a moment to speak in private with Brindle."
Brindle who stood protectively beside her looked no worse for the wear. His face now had new wrinkles to go along with the old. The stormy blue eyes were somewhat tempered, the effect of having almost lost Mira to the Dark Horde.
Timber, the swampcat recovering from his wounds, lay quietly. His attention drawn to the last place they had seen Zachery Roe vanish behind the Veil. Brindle happened to find him in the 'Bogs', small and mewling over the body of it's mother. She had grown old and died. A inhospitable place filled with swamp water and trees shadowed by thick vines. Whispers were that strange creatures could be heard when the sun set and the inky darkness of night whispered.
And then there was Kaylin. He gazed long and hard at the woman, thick fingers stroking his beard often when giving consideration to new circumstances. Over the short period of time he'd come to notice something different. Not that he knew her all that well, but there was no mistaking the lack of robust color in her cheeks. And the oft cough that she was having trouble hiding.
Resigned to fact that all they could do was wait, he was about to gather more firewood when he heard her voice call out.
"While we wait for Sirhan you should bring Mira and Timber to rest by the fire. I need a moment to speak in private with Brindle."
A curt nod as he took Mira's hand, and the first smile he'd seen in some time found joy in the warmth of the fire and the strengthening of the Veil. She sat as Sirhan rummaged through one of the sacks bringing out foodstuffs he had brought for the voyage. Atop a log they spoke in hushed tones enjoying a moment free from the threat of death.
Brindle stood quietly...watching. She was growing in a way he had never intended. The 'Hands of Fate' are harsh taskmasters. A rare breeze gave him momentary comfort as it tugged briefly at the hem of his robe. He was getting too old for this nonsense. Shaking his head he headed in Kaylin's direction, old leaves crunching beneath his slippers.
They found a place beneath a tall oak, it's thick roots pushing up from the ground. It was there that they stood with their heads close together.
Brindle hadn't had the chance to stand so close to Kaylin and this being his first opportunity, he noticed perspiration forming above her brows.
He knew the signs of sickness.
A quirk of curiosity from his own brow would not be lost on the warrior woman as he listened to what she had to say.
As her vision focused she exhaled slowly, looked back to the dwarven king and the young girl. "Brindle..I'm dying. I removed a seal while we were back in the elven city in order to have my fullest ability to save her. My time is dwindling fast but I swore I would not die until I saw her safely returned to you. Jaxe..already knows." Though at the time he was told he really didn't seem to care to listen. Or care in general.
She fell quiet, leaning her back to the tree not for support but in a moment of comfort. "When I feel the time is close I will slip off into the shadows so as not to cause a problem. I will make sure no one notices when the time comes but I would like you to know it's been a privilege to fight alongside Jaxe, yourself, and Sirhan. And I hope you will take care of precious Mia.."
She fell silent after dropping the bombshell worth of news on him. She had waited far too long she knew but at least Brindle listened. And listen he did. With the elder so close she knew he'd rather be with Mira then listen to whatever she had to say but then again he had that flicker of curiosity in his eyes. She knew before she even started talking he knew something was up. But to him..like everyone else there..she was but an outsider lending a hand. It was only till recently that they started to even trust her.
Was she anything more than just that? A helping hand? She couldn't really tell. They respected her for sure as a warrior and a person of skill but past that it was a good question. Jaxe's threat to kill her still stung true and deep. But it was because it came from him..the one who she originally gave up everything for...
About to pose a question, the ground began to tremble.
Sirhan and Mira having found a bit of laughter while they ate and taking respite around the warmth of the campfire looked up suddenly. The dwarf king's attention was drawn to the Veil thinking that it's power was about to fail completely.
"Sirhan, what is it?" Mira looked up expecting a reasonable answer but found his expression blank. Rising she whistled for Timber. The long sleek cat came at a trot and stood at her side, his head held low as the rumble of a growl slipped free.
Something was wrong.
All of the sudden the glade shook violently causing all to fall. Kaylin and Brindle tumbled together trading stunned looks. It was impossible to stand. They could hear Sirhan shout as the trees around them swayed.
In the deeper recesses of his mind Brindle thought different. Around the Bogs there were small quakes', but this was something else. Managing to look up, over the Veil's rim he could just make out one of the mountain peaks. Eyes narrowing he saw debris flying skyward, a small chunk of the mountainside exploding.
And as quickly as it came it suddenly stopped. All were stunned, everyone trying desperately to clear their heads when they noticed a part of the barrier weakening. A opening wide enough for someone to pass through. And indeed there was the silhouette of someone approaching.
Zachery Roe appeared, the darkness of his cloak casting him as a ominous messenger, his face now exposed beneath his cowl as grim as anyone had ever seen it. And there was good reason...
...Cradled in his arms was the body of Jaxe Blade.
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