The Black March
King Raymond's Court - Pyrus - Westcliffe
Looking up at the tall, arching windows set high in the walls of his throne room, King Raymond found himself admiring golden flecks of dust, floating astray in the warm rays of light that beamed down upon the court. His sharp green eyes locked onto one and followed, followed, followed it until it danced out of the morning glow to be forever lost on some cold grey brick. He almost sighed, but he knew not to; it would have been rude to interrupt the man that was speaking to him. Raymond snapped suddenly out of his daydream, realizing that he should have been listening the whole time.
"... they sacked a town not sixty minutes' walk from my own, Your Grace. I assure you, they've never been this aggressive, nor this daring. In past years, the pirates of the east would only raid small fishing villages along the coast, and even then with caution, as their numbers were so few. We swampfolk do not take kindly to intruders, and before now, we always managed to fight them off. But something has changed." The haggard old man paused for dramatic effect, the lump in his thin, loose neck bobbing down and back up with a swallow. He looked, to the king, much like any other peasant, though with a few qualities that marked him as a man of the Swamplands. His feet, for one, were much larger than those of the average man, and were stuffed into mud-spattered boots of faded, cracked leather. He also had a certain smell of mold to him, so prominent that Raymond had a hard time ignoring it, even seated thirty feet away in his polished throne. That, too, was characteristic of the swampfolk, due to their long years spent absorbing the pungent scent of bog and marsh. The rest of the man's features were rather ordinary: brittle, grey hair that was matted and clearly unwashed; a face covered in wrinkles, scars, and pockmarks hard-earned over many years; small, beady black eyes hidden beneath immense bushlike eyebrows; a swollen, arcing nose that looked something like a vulture's beak; tattered brown robes that could easily have passed for a large burlap sack. The man also carried an ugly, gnarled walking staff, complete with a knob at the top that he had a tendency to rub nervously.
"And what exactly has changed? Are you suggesting the pirates have formed some sort of alliance against their mutual swamp-dwelling enemies?" Raymond's voice boomed through the courtroom, thrice as loud as that of the old man. While he may not have been the best king the realm had ever known, none could deny that he had a king's voice. Murmurs skittered between the spectators, nobles and commoners alike, whispering their irrelevant opinions between one another. The old man's eyes darted to and fro across the marble floor, as if he were trying to spot a particularly swift rat. Raymond sat patiently, leaning slightly on one arm of the throne, tapping a finger against the smooth black stone. Raymond was a handsome man, and he knew it well. He was tall, lean, and quite strong for one who spent so much time sitting in a chair and enduring complaints. His hair fell neatly to just above his shoulders, an even darker shade of black than that of his royal seat. His eyes were a piercing, verdant green that seemed to cut through to the soul. Atop his head sat the golden crown, studded with alternating sapphires and rubies, the vibrant colors of the Pyran Arc. The great Arc itself, the symbol of his kingdom, was embroidered upon his chest in golden thread, reaching from breast to breast just as he intended for it to soon reach from coast to coast. He made quite an impressive sight seated above his subjects; certainly compared to the withered peasant before him, who was still fumbling for words.
"N-no, Your Grace, perhaps not an alliance. But t-their numbers... they have never come in such force, I tell you true. And they are no longer simply pillaging then returning to sea, but they have actually begun to occupy the villages they take, enslaving the men and using the women for their sick entertainment." Raymond could hear venom in the man's voice, an intense hatred that surprised him coming from such a frail body. The thought of using swamp women for 'entertainment' nearly made him gag, but he let the man continue. "Please, Your Grace, we are in urgent need of your aid. There is much distance between Pyrus and the Swamplands, I know, but I have heard of the Arc's deeds in the Islands of the Emerald Tide. Surely, if you can spare men to aid the savages of the Isles, you can assist your brethren to the east." More hushed voices rippled through the audience. King Raymond was somewhat irritated by the nerve of the man, but he was also rather impressed. It was a smart move, calling the influence of the Pyran Arc into question; the Swamplands were not much farther away than the Isles, and did not require ships to reach. Still, Raymond remained unconvinced.
"Jade Harbor is an achievement of much larger scale than shooing off pirates, would you not agree? We have successfully founded a haven for the tribes of the Isles to unite peacefully under our moderation, and that is the first step toward establishing harmony between them. I will not deny that the friendship of the swampfolk is something that the Arc should strive to obtain, but at the moment it is not the foremost of my concerns. Aside from the Isles, I have men off fighting bandits and rebels, negotiating with the Wood Elves, keeping Orcs out of our territory. I've had to assign armed escorts for our trade wagons because of how perilous the roads have been as of late; the traders bound for Goldenreach require double the protection. The Pyran Arc is a force great enough to govern the realm, do not doubt that. At present, however, my army is scattered abroad and I cannot afford to send soldiers to the other end of the earth to tame pirates." Raymond sat back, pleased with himself, and took a breath. The man shuffled, tapping his staff anxiously on the ground.
"I see. Thank you for your time, then. I will be on my way now." Quietly and suddenly, the swamp man turned and pushed his way through the thick press of the audience. He strode briskly to the back of the hall, exiting through the great wooden doors, which creaked open and shut with a bang that shook the courtroom. Raymond glanced over at Elmyr, who gave him a nod of approval. Elmyr the Paladin was Raymond's most loyal servant, and his most trusted advisor. They had been close friends since even before Raymond was king, back in his youth, when he was a dashing prince and Elmyr was a mere church boy with a noble father. That father was since dead, as was Raymond's, and in turn they both had sons of their own, who completed the heartwarming cycle by becoming best friends as well. Not only was Elmyr a valiant guardian, but also a master of strategy and war tactics. It was he who organized the defensive positions of the courtroom's royal guard, who were disciplined to perfection, and stood like statues along the walls and around the throne. Half were halberdiers, half swordsmen, and at a moment's notice they could form a deadly serrated ring of steel around anyone who threatened their king. That very formation had saved Raymond from a would-be assassin not two years prior, a young lad with incredible swordsmanship who might well have opened His Majesty's throat. Instead, the mercenary had found himself bitten several times over by cold blades, and unable to raise a hand without the circle tightening around him. After the incident, when the boy had been confined to a lifetime in a pitch-black cell, Raymond had thanked Elmyr with a great feast.
The morning dragged on with more requests and complaints, none quite as interesting or eventful as the plea of the swamp man. When it was finally done, the court cleared out, and Raymond stood to stretch his legs. He walked over to Elmyr, who gave a slight bow. "What do you make of this talk of pirates, Your Grace?" The Paladin asked with a raised eyebrow. His armor was a glittering gold, the only armor Raymond thought comparable to his own gem-encrusted battle garb, which was scarcely used anymore. Elmyr was a handsome man, with thin sand-colored hair, smiling brown eyes, and a faint shadow of stubble that he could never seem to get rid of. He always teased the king with formalities in public, even though he knew Raymond hated it; to Elmyr, he would always be Ray, regardless of his status.
"Most likely an exaggeration. Man sees his neighbor's house burned down by a few drunken sailors, convinces himself there's a pirate storm brewing on the horizon. I've heard similar tales before, and they never lead anywhere. Pirates are volatile, unpredictable, and most importantly, cowardly. As soon as whatever men I might have sent got to the other coast, they'd have found themselves staring at the back end of a few fleeing ships. I see no sense in that, do you?" Raymond asked.
"Well..." Elmyr shrugged his head to the side and frowned briefly. "I suppose that's true. I just find myself wondering, if there is no real threat, then why would he venture all this way? An old man like him surely knows the risks of such a long, perilous journey, especially alone."
Raymond had not considered that. At times like these, part of him wished Elmyr had been made king; the man certainly held more wisdom, and kept a level head at all times. He sighed, wondering if he had just sent an old man off to his demise. "Perhaps. Has any word come in from Sundravale or Jade Harbor?"
"Aye," responded Elmyr. "A letter arrived from Admiral Resk last night. More fighting, and another one of ours found dead in an alley. The tribesmen aren't cooperating, he claims. It only goes to assert his belief that we should be allowed to use force. How convenient for him."
"It isn't an option." Raymond shook his head, sweeping his hair away from his brow. "If we get aggressive with the tribes, they'll get aggressive right back at us, and as of right now they greatly outnumber our forces on the Isles. A small force of steel cannot withstand a tide of stone and bronze. Jade Harbor is a haven, and will remain so, as promised. Tell him his men are not authorized to use force unless directly attacked. This is a diplomacy mission, not a hostile takeover."
Elmyr seemed pleased by the king's response. "Fair is fair. I never liked that one, to tell you the truth of it, Ray. Something grim about him. Might be time to pull him back, send in a new leader, maybe one who's not so..."
"Savage?" Raymond finished his thought for him. "Why, who could be better to treat with savages?"
Market Square - Sandbrim - Goldenreach
A bead of sweat formed at the bridge of Vez's nose, pooling to life from the relentless heat, and fell like a tear down her cheek. She stood impatiently, hands on her hips, watching the negotiation from afar while the noontime sun pounded heavily on the stiff air around her. It had been nearly ten minutes since Louse had gone to speak with those travelling merchants, leaving her to wait under the ineffective shade of a leatherworker's canopy. The husband-and-wife traders that were hiring them were clearly very nervous, Vez could see that even from across the square. Pyran folk, she knew as soon as she'd seen them the first time the night before. Light-skinned with fancy clothes, covered in buttons and pockets. This was the first time those merchants had ever left Westcliffe to bring their sales south to Goldenreach, Louse had told her, and they had sold all of their goods in three days. Surely a longer trip than stopping into the nearest Pyran market town, but the villages of Goldenreach were built for trade. It was an exotic place, the Freelands as many called it, for Goldenreach held no ruler. Countless men and women had tried to rise to power, and the Pyran Arc had attempted to extend its grip several times, but none could succeed in controlling the untame desert. At the boiling heart of it was Bazaar, a city made of nothing but shops and markets that grew out over Goldenreach like a spreading fungus. Already, Vez had seen the trade city swallow two nearby villages into its endlessly expanding borders.
The Guilds were the only sort of government that Bazaar had. Prestigious organizations lead by great merchants and sellswords, the wealthy and the powerful and the cunning. They traded and fought and rose and crumbled all within the non-existent walls of the bustling city. At the moment, Cersevelli was on top with the Spicer's Guild. The suave, slender ivory-skinned man had a hand in every pocket in Goldenreach, with trade connections in far-off lands that no one else had ever heard of. He had been the true leadership of the Black Wasps, the fabled assassin's guild that Vez and Louse had been a part of, and she had even seen him speaking with their guildmaster in the hall once. But then the Vagrant appeared and formed his guild of Wraiths, and suddenly Wasps were turning up with their throats slit all across the city. Their guild had evaporated almost entirely after that, and Vez and Louse were cast out to fend for themselves.
Mercenary life had brought them here, to the edge of the desert; Sandbrim, one of the border villages. Protective work always paid well, particularly because timid little merchants like their soon-to-be-employers were almost as afraid of mercenaries as they were of bandits. Louse would milk more than enough coin out of them, Vez knew. He was a devilish man, with eyes such a pale blue they almost looked milky grey. He was shorter than Vez, and nimble, with slick brown hair and an intricately styled goatee that highlighted a permanently laughing expression. He was her only true friend; they'd grown up together in the Wasps like brother and sister, two orphans plucked off the street and trained to take lives. His charm and boundless wit got her through one blistering, bloody desert day after the next.
But now it seemed that they were finally getting a chance to step out of the heat. These merchants were headed home, to some happy southern hamlet in Westcliffe, where there was grass and trees and life rather than hot, dead sand. Vez wanted out of the Reach, out for adventure somewhere north or east. She'd been to Westcliffe a few times and Hazel Valley once, but only to bury a dagger in a couple of unlucky backs and poison the occasional soup kettle. This would be different; no mission, no contract, just free roam through the great lands beyond the sand. Vez reached a gloved hand up and wiped her damp crimson hair off to the side. It was short compared to most women, a windswept helmet of spiky red strands that shimmered in the blinding sunlight. She kept her brass-colored goggles on during days like this, her single favorite thing to have ever purchased in Bazaar. Not only did they shield her lilac eyes from the sun, but they also made her face harder to read; she was unsure which of those perks she liked better. She wore a lightweight vest of studded black leather, with sturdy travelling boots and fingerless gloves, over a set of dark green clothing that could breathe rather than boiling her alive. In the back of her belt was a row of small throwing knives, newly bought from a local weaponsmith, and sheathed at her hips were a parrying dagger and a longsword.
After what felt like an eternity, the merchants climbed up into the wagon and snapped their mules into a trot. Louse strode swiftly back across the road to Vez, nodding and wearing a proud smirk. "Two golden arcs, eight silver crowns, and when we get them safely home we each get our pick of some nice new clothes from their shop. Could use some, these old dusty rags are starting to get frayed." He held out a sleeve that had a sizeable tear in the hem.
Vez considered it for a moment, then nodded in agreement. "I've always liked Pyran currency. People in the deeper villages think it's worth twice as much as it really is. Suppose we won't be seeing them for a while though, will we?"
Louse grinned as they set off to walk beside the wagon. "No, I say we keep heading north after this one. Plenty of rich Pyran nobles looking for a hired knife to solve their petty feuds. Perhaps someone will send us after their pretty king... we'd get our own castles for that kind of job." He sighed, gazing off into the distance. "A man can dream."
Vez laughed, staring forward at the distant treeline, a trembling shadow on the horizon. It looked almost like a mirage, like some cruel trick the gods were playing to taunt the citizens of Sandbrim. But it was there, the green land just across one last crisp, glittering dune. They trudged along beside the cart, keeping their eyes open for other wanderers along the dusty desert road. A few other merchants passed, mostly dark-skinned natives of Goldenreach returning from their travels with bags full of coin and carts stocked with trade goods. A pale Elf rode by on a horse, with a polished longbow hung across his back and a quiver tied to his belt. Elves were rather common in the Freelands, as Hazel Valley bordered it to the northeast. Vez had seen stranger folk in other villages, further east. She had even seen a couple of Orcs, hideous brutes from the wasteland of Parch. Everyone was wary around Orcs, but Goldenreach was open to all, so they were not turned away.
Louse tapped her on the shoulder suddenly, pointing off several yards ahead of the wagon, to where three figures were standing at the side of the road. "Seems like an odd place to stop for breath. Keep your fingers poised." He muttered under his breath, so the merchants couldn't hear. There was no need to worry them, and three ordinary men stood no chance against Louse and Vez. As they approached, the men stepped out into the road, blocking the way. The one on the left was squat and fat, with a shining bald head and a sweating, sunburnt face that resembled that of a pig. He had a huge nose, a low brow, pouting lips and plump cheeks. In his hand was a short bronze bludgeon, clutched tightly between his meaty fingers. The man on the right was much the opposite; tall and bone-thin, with a hollow face and ash-colored hair that looked like burnt straw. Stuffed in his belt was a rusty-looking copper knife. Both were dressed in stained brown rags, but the man in between them looked slightly more fortunate. He was clad in simple ringmail, and rested a hand calmly on the pommel of his sheathed shortsword. His pepper-colored hair fell to his shoulders, and his eyes flicked between Vez, Louse, and the cart, lingering for slightly too long on the last.
"That's far enough." He announced confidently, raising a palm out before him with practiced laziness. "No need to make things ugly here, aye? We're feelin' kind today, so we'll just have the purses and you can carry on without any broken bones." The men to either side of him scowled, the skinny one wiping something away from the corner of his mouth. Vez could hear a long exhalation coming from Louse, and saw his hand brush his dagger in her periphery. The armored man stood, frowning, and looked impatiently at both of them. "Well? Get on with it."
"Very well." Vez declared, drawing her steel in unison with her partner. The merchant woman yelped and dove into the back of the cart, leaving her husband frozen at the reins, gaping down at the commotion. The highwayman looked taken aback, and barked an order to his lackeys. They rushed forward, weapons in hand, the fat one charging headlong toward Vez. She stood her ground and waited for the distance to close, then dodged swiftly aside as he brought his bludgeon down with a clumsy swing. She sidestepped behind him, slashing across the back of his knee, leaving a sputtering gash. He roared and whirled around with another great swing, but Vez ducked, and the brutish weapon crashed into the side of the wooden wagon. She lunged upward at the man, past his arm and collided with him, her sword burying itself in his guts. He grunted a foul-smelling death rattle, then fell backward, unsheathing Vez's wet red blade from his body.
Vez spun to see the man's comrade meeting a similar fate, as Louse effortlessly deflected two slashes, stunned the man with a backhand, and flashed his dagger through the sunlight to draw a spray of warm blood from his opponent's throat. They fell in beside each other, stalking toward the armored man, who had his dull iron sword held out at arm's length. "Bastards! I'll take that pretty head as a trophy, woman!" He shouted across at them, spit flying from his brown teeth. Louse darted in suddenly, spinning away from a wide horizontal slash and getting behind the highwayman, who turned with him, leaving his back exposed. Vez leapt forward, bringing her dagger down between the neck and collarbone, then kicking the man's legs out from beneath him. A geyser of blood spurted up as Vez stepped back, and the robber dropped his weapon to clutch the wound, screaming in pain as he landed on his knees. Louse smiled at her, giving a cheerful salute before slashing his sword across the man's neck. The body crumpled onto the sandy road, his shortsword a few feet away from reach. Vez wiped blood off of her cheek as the Pyran woman emerged from her hiding place. Upon seeing the carnage, she bent over the back of the wagon and retched.
"Yours looked quite like a pig." Louse called over to her, cleaning the blood off his blade and gloves with a stained cloth.
Last edited by Rowle; 07-15-2013 at 06:00 AM.
Selvin Household - Bellbrook - Westcliffe
A calm breeze drifted through the air, gently swaying the leaves of the old, hunched willow trees. The stream wriggled past, snaking around and between the great trunks. Its soft trickling was the sweetest thing Gabriel had ever known; it was the sound of home, of youth and safety and comfort. Before him stood the wooden home of the Selvin family, modest and tranquil, perched at a bend in the brook from which the village took its name. It was a place of serenity, nestled in the corner of Bellbrook, built nearly sixty years before by a grandfather that Gabriel had never known. It was his father who lived there now, old Benjamin Selvin, Gabriel's one true hero. The locals affectionately called him Ben o' the Willows, for the withered old trees that surrounded his home. Ben had told his son many times that the house itself was made of willow wood, though Gabriel could never be sure if it was the truth or a mere jest. Passing beneath the shade of the trees, Gabriel strode toward the entrance, his armor clinking faintly as he moved. He was dressed in the heavy chainmail of a guard, vest and leggings, with a sword hanging from his hip and an iron-banded buckler on his arm. His appearance was rather unremarkable, with clean cut brown hair, chestnut eyes, and the stern expression of a dutiful man.
Gabriel pushed the door open, knocking on the wall as he entered. His father was leaning over his workbench in the back corner, polishing a pair of fine leather boots. Ben Selvin had once been a Pyran soldier, like Gabriel, but in his old age he had turned to the life of a cobbler. He could proudly boast that half of Bellbrook had his shoes on their feet, and the other half had a pair in their wardrobe. Upon hearing the knock, Ben turned from his work, grinning when he saw his son in the doorway. "Gabe!" He cheered across the room, setting down the cloth to stride over and embrace Gabriel. Ben had been a strong man in his day, and an excellent swordsman, but age had taken most of his hard-earned muscle away. He stood half a head shorter than Gabriel, with a soft crop of white hair and big, round blue eyes that beamed at the sight of his son. He was clad in simple clothing; a loose shirt of burgundy, tan-colored breeches that were rolled up to the knees, and a well-kept pair of sandals that he had made himself. Releasing the embrace, he stepped back, a hand still resting on Gabriel's shoulder. "How goes the life of a young soldier? Come, sit." The father ushered the son toward the dusty wooden dining table where they seated themselves opposite each other. "Any news?" Ben asked eagerly.
Gabriel knew that the old man did not receive much company in his corner of the village, save for the occasional customer, so he cherished his son's visits. "Nothing of great interest, I fear." Gabriel sighed, unstrapping his shield and laying it on the floor, then resting his elbows on the table. "The life of a guard in Bellbrook is dreadfully uneventful." He looked over at the window, where white curtains fluttered in the wind, older even than he was. He remembered those curtains from his childhood, remembered hiding behind them when he had played with his older brother. Outside, at the bank of the small river, he could see the tops of the two headstones that marked the graves of his mother and brother. Maria Selvin had died when Gabriel was fourteen years old, taken by a sudden fever. Ben and Gabriel had been heartbroken, but Jason had just reached manhood, and his grief took the form of seething rage. He had stormed off to Parch, where the Pyran Arc had waged war on the Orcs, and word eventually came back that he had been slain by an axe blow to the gut. His corpse had never made it back, so his grave was merely symbolic.
"Well, you should be glad of it. The day may come where you are forced to shed blood, and that is no easy thing to do. It is in your soul to be a great warrior, Gabriel, but that is a blessing as much as a curse." He stopped for a moment, eyeing Gabriel's sheathed longsword. He pointed a callused finger at the scabbard. "You must train rigorously with that blade, but never long to use it."
"I am not eager to take a life, father. But each day I hear the news come in as I patrol the village, news of bandit uprisings and distant campaigns. I feel like my service is being wasted... I should be a peacekeeper in Jade Harbor, I should be escorting the envoys to the Barrier Woods, but instead I am posted here." Gabriel shook his head in frustration.
"Your time will come, lad, just as mine did. Today you guard the humble village of Bellbrook, perhaps tomorrow you will be defending the noble Lord Alyn." Ben o' the Willows offered a sly smirk, which broke into a hearty chuckle. Gabriel could not help but join in the laughter.
"Noble indeed. The man is so noble that he seems to be above standing on his own two feet." Gabriel replied, much to his father's amusement. Mortimer Alyn was the lord of Sentry Bluff, the nearby Pyran city where Gabriel had trained as a soldier. The man was of an age with old Ben, and they had been childhood friends when the Selvin family still lived in the city. However, the years and wealth and power had not shaped Alyn into a man so kind as Ben; instead, he became as bitter as he was withered, and spent his days wasting away in his courtroom seat.
"Aye, it's an unfortunate thing. I remember how we used to run and play as boys, how he was always just a little bit faster than me." Ben leaned back, a reflective expression on his face. "Ah, well. I suppose I shouldn't be keeping you long." He pushed back from the table and stood. "Loathe it as you may, you still have a village to patrol." He leaned against the wooden wall as Gabriel picked his shield back up. "It'll get easier, son. Learn to appreciate how privileged we are, how safe and secure, and perhaps your job will seem less wearisome."
Gabriel considered the advice, then nodded in agreement. "You're right, father. Thank you for the advice." He hugged Ben once more, patting his bony back carefully, so as not to knock the wind out of him. "I'll visit again soon. Take care of yourself."
The walk back to the main part of the village was rather quiet, and Gabriel found Mullwyck, his partner, still waiting near the blacksmith. Mullwyck was a tall, thick man, with a bald head and hazel eyes that were slightly too close together. Despite how strong he was, his lack of wit and speed restricted his combat capabilities to something just below mediocrity. He was dressed similarly to Gabriel, though he preferred a greatsword that he kept sheathed on his back, the hilt jutting out over his shoulder. "Back so soon?" He mocked in his deep, slow voice. "Thought you'd left me to rot there. How's old Ben?"
"He's doing well. His advice was to simply appreciate the peace and calm while we have the chance." Gabriel responded as they began walking their rounds through the village roads. "Suppose he has a point. Maybe we'll miss all of this if we ever get sent off to do something important."
"Something important, eh? Might be someone happened to have just whispered in my ear about something important." Mullwyck gave him a broad, ugly grin that conveyed a sort of pride and excitement.
"And what would that be?" Gabriel responded, his curiosity piqued slightly by the remark.
"Rebels been found in the Bluff. Them ones that's led by that Vyrias fellow, the one who's out for the king's blood. Word is, the marshal wants to send a few men up to help root 'em out. Everyone knows you're the best sword Bellbrook's got, and me... well, I'm your partner. He'll probably send a few others as well, Riley, perhaps Welt and Dallin. Point is, if we get sent up there, we get a chance to prove ourselves to the marshal, or maybe even Alyn. How's that for important, heh?" Mullwyck shrugged an eyebrow at Gabriel, still flaunting his crooked yellow teeth.
Gabriel tried to fight off a smile, but failed. It sounded like just the opportunity he'd been hoping for. As they walked, he found himself seeing the village in a new light. He tried to appreciate and absorb the harmony as much as he could, knowing deep within his soul that he would soon be leaving it behind.
Northern Docks - Jade Harbor - R'ulu (Islands of the Emerald Tide)
Salt water crashed against the jagged rocks beneath the pier, spraying a fine mist up to cool Zella's face. Her legs dangled over the edge of the walkway as she stared out at the giant wooden boats with their great colored sails and their tangled webs of ropes and strings. The crewmen were at work, unloading cargo or scrubbing the decks or boarding other ships in hopes of trade. Some of the men had white skin, the men of the west who had built Jade Harbor, who patrolled its alleys and districts to keep the tribesmen from spilling blood. Others had dark brown skin that shone in the sunlight, and others still were the same tan color as Zella, but did not come from the Isles. She saw men who were half the height of their fellow sailors, with thick arms and broad chests and shaggy beards that looked like animal pelts. She saw tall, slender men with sharp features and pointed ears and bright, catlike eyes. On one particularly exotic boat she caught a glimpse of a beast-like man with grey-green skin, and when he opened his mouth his teeth were like rows of tusks. Some of the sailors had black hair, some fiery red, some golden like the sun, and many had no hair at all. Zella was fascinated by the diversity that she saw here; it was her favorite thing about the newly founded city. She could have spent hours sitting there, watching the ships enter and leave and rock in the waves.
Looking upward, she saw that the sun was beginning to set, and the sky wore a warm orange glow that shimmered off the ocean. Zella pushed herself to her feet, picking her spear up from the ground beside her. She was a young girl; eighteen, but fierce as any of the men in her clan. Slim and well-toned from the physical duress of hunting, she had grown into a rather beautiful young woman, with straight black hair that she tied back with twine so it would not fall into her amber eyes. Her skin was smooth and tan, dressed in light furs and leathers that she had earned in the wild, with thin sandals that she had worn for the voyage. Zella's tribe, the White Talon, controlled the northern island of Hathaad, but she and many others had come to R'ulu to visit Jade Harbor. R'ulu was the western island, and was not held by any single tribe before the city was built, which was why the men who called themselves Pyrans chose it for their sanctuary. Here, under the moderation of the Pyrans, the tribes could unite and negotiate peacefully rather than settling their disputes with war.
Still, the tension in the air was thick. The natives were not accustomed to standing on the same ground as their rivals without weapons drawn, and in the shadows of the city, corpses were found every day. Zella knew that the feathers in her hair and clothing, the symbol of her tribe, made her a target for whoever lurked in those shadows; though it was likely that her own people held some of the responsibility. The tribal wars were as much a part of the island culture as eating, sleeping, and hunting. Zella had claimed her share of lives, mostly those of Skinned Men, the cannibal tribe that populated the eastern island of Mna Shi. She was raised to fight as well as any of them, and her bronze-tipped spear knew the taste of both human and animal blood well.
Zella stretched her arms and yawned as she turned to head back to the strange wooden building where she and her brethren were to eat and sleep during their stay. She had never been inside such a structure before, but now she was surrounded by them, and they were fascinating. As she began walking off down the path, she felt something furry brush up against her leg. She smiled, reaching a hand down to stroke the leopard at her side; Telji, her closest friend and most loyal companion. Telji and Zella had met six years before, when she had been hunting for rabbits. The spotted jungle cat had limped into a clearing, bleeding severely from its front-left leg. One of the men accompanying her, Luoro, had almost shot the great beast with an arrow, but Zella had felt a sudden compulsion to stop him, and instead she had set her spear aside and approached the leopard unarmed. She could still remember touching his fur for the first time, and the way his defensive stance had vanished all at once. Zella had led the wounded beast back to her village, where she had bandaged his leg and taken care of him until it had healed fully. From that day forward, Telji had been bonded to her by soul, and her people had begun to call her Zella the Fanged.
The streets were no longer as busy as they had been at midday, but Zella passed a few strangers in the afternoon light. One of the tall, pointy-eared men walked by her with a large crate in his arms; when he smiled at her, she failed to resist a blush. A pair of Pyran soldiers dressed in steel clothes trudged by as well, and Zella could not help but stare at the shining silver and wonder how they were able to move in it, let alone fight. A fat, tan sailor with dirty clothes and a thicket of a black beard swaggered past, scanning Zella thoroughly with his eyes and staring for an uncomfortable amount of time at her breasts. She tried not to be bothered by the perversions of men; if necessary, she could have put her spear through his groin anyway. Then, as she was nearing the street where the wooden sleep-building stood, she turned a corner and found herself face-to-face with a Skinned Man. He was taller than her, with all of his hair shaved off and his skin painted red, as was the custom for his people. His clothing was covered with strips of hide, fur, and flesh, dangling and dancing whenever the wind blew. They were trophies, she knew, meant to display the kills he was most proud of. The hilt of a hunting knife stuck out from a leather sheathe at his hip, and he grabbed for it and hissed when he saw the feathers in her hair. Zella jumped back and poised her spear, but Telji stepped in front of her and gave a ferocious growl. Confused and startled, the Skinned Man slowly released his grip, and slid away silently.
Breathing a sigh of relief, Zella the Fanged entered the great wooden building, where she found many of her brothers and sisters of the White Talon eating meat and fruits. They called her name and beckoned her over, feeding her and Telji and sharing stories of their experiences in the city. Quo showed them two knives of iron that he had traded one of his pelts for, Tsera made half the room roar with laughter with a tale of a drunken sailor falling into the harbor, and Zella herself shared the story of the Skinned Man who had nearly wet himself at the sight of Telji. The meat was delicious, seared and moist with a tenderness she had never known before, and the fruits were strange, exotic red things with seeds on the outside and a sweet taste. Hours passed before the men and women of the tribe began to leave, walking up the stairs to the rooms where they would sleep. Zella had gotten to her feet and started moving toward the steps when a white-skinned man stepped in her way, an arm held out before him. She recognized him as the one who owned the building and cooked the food, a fleshy man with big, meaty hands.
He pointed at Telji. "No, not him." He declared firmly, speaking slowly so that Zella could comprehend his foreign tongue. Some of the Pyran language was similar to her own, as they had come from the same ancestors long ago, but many of their words were strange and elaborate. She did, however, understand the word 'no'.
"No?" She asked, taken aback by the confrontation. Telji had slept in her room the night before, and the man had not objected.
"He got into my meat. I woke up this morning and three good slabs were missing, and his teeth marks were all over a fourth." The man was gesturing with his hands, pointing again at Telji and pretending to tear into something with his teeth. He thrust a finger toward the door, nodding at the leopard. "He sleeps outside."
Zella understood well enough what was being asked of her, and she was tempted to argue, but she knew better than to disrespect a man who was offering shelter for her people. With a grunt, she turned and led Telji outside, where the sun had slipped beyond the horizon, leaving the city covered in deep blue shadows. She decided to head around to the alley beside the inn, where Telji could still be close to her even with a wooden wall between them. "Sleep here, Telji." She whispered to him, patting his head gently to assure that it would be okay. She could feel his reluctance in the way that he was staring at her, and she felt nervous leaving him alone in the dark, but it had to be done. After a few minutes of Zella stroking his fur and muttering quietly to the tired beast, he finally shut his eyes and began to sleep, his back heaving as he purred.
Just as she stood to head back inside, a sudden scraping sound drew Zella's attention to the end of the alley. She padded slowly toward it, the fingers of her right hand clenched where her spear should have been. As she stalked down the alley, she began to hear voices at the far end, drifting around the corner. She pressed up against the wall and slid in the direction of the sounds, concealed by the shadows of the tall buildings. Peering over into the next alley, Zella saw four men; three were Pyrans, with their white skin and metal clothes, and the fourth...
... was the Skinned Man. In the faint moonlight, she could see that he was backed against a wall. Two of the Pyrans had helmets on and appeared to be scolding him, while the third stood back and watched. He was a handsome man, with short blonde hair that was slicked back, a moustache that attached to his neatly trimmed barb of a beard, and a powerful air of authority. Zella tried to make out the words of the men, but they were too distant and muffled, so she could only watch. The two with the helmets continued to yell at the Skinned Man, jabbing fingers at him and spitting at his feet. Then, in the blink of an eye, one of the Pyrans grabbed for his sword, but the Skinned Man was quicker. Zella saw a wild combination of fear and adrenaline flash in the native's eyes as he drew his knife and brought it across the throat of the man on the left, who dropped his weapon clumsily and fell backward, blood bubbling from his lips and gushing from his neck. As the other two Pyrans reached for their blades, the Skinned Man threw all of his force into a backswing, attempting to stab the second helmeted man in the heart. The blade bounced off the silvery armor, leaving behind nothing but a dent as it fell from his grip and clattered to the ground.
The helmeted Pyran began to counterattack with a swing of his sword, but the man in the back pushed his accomplice aside and grabbed the Skinned Man by the throat, shoving him forcefully back against the wall. He leaned in close and growled something to his disarmed foe, before bashing him in the head with the hilt of his shimmering sword. The Skinned Man yelped and fell to the ground, but the golden-haired Pyran continued to hammer at his skull until a sickening crunch echoed through the night. Zella covered her mouth to hold back a gasp as she watched blood splash from the shattered head of the Skinned Man, pooling on the stone floor of the alley and soaking into the strips of hide, fur, and flesh on his clothes. The assailant stepped back, red fluid dripping from his sword hilt and spattered across his face and chest. He walked over to the body of the fallen Pyran and used the man's cloak to clean the blood off of himself, then gestured for the surviving companion to follow him. The other man hesitated for a moment, shocked by what he had seen, but ultimately obeyed and strode out of the alley, leaving two fresh corpses in the shadows of Jade Harbor.
Last edited by Rowle; 08-11-2013 at 09:45 AM.
Pyran Outpost - South Border - Westcliffe/Goldenreach
In the distance, the great grey towers reached up for the sky like old fingers of stone, rising above the treeline that marked the border between Westcliffe and Goldenreach. Vez could see men patrolling the battlements, little steel ants that would occasionally reflect a glare of sunlight into her eyes; Pyran guards, monitoring the fine line between the lands of the free and the lands of King Raymond. She glanced at the wagon that was rumbling along next to her, where the merchant woman had finally decided to rejoin her husband in the front. After their messy encounter with the bandits, she had remained hidden in the back of the wagon for quite some time, only revealing her pale face when she felt the need to hurl on the road. The two of them were as silent and sweaty as ever, but Vez saw a touch of relief in their expressions as the outpost ahead came into view. That dull stone architecture was the gateway to their home, and surely they were less likely to run into bandits with the stern eye of the Pyran Arc watching over them.
Louse was strolling along on her other side, his face relaxed into a default smirk. He was flipping a knife deftly from hand to hand to pass the time, despite the uncomfortable looks he had been receiving from the merchant woman, who had certainly seen enough unsheathed steel for one day. "Guards shouldn't give us too much trouble. After all, we saved two of their own from an ambush." He announced calmly, before shooting a challenging stare in the direction of the merchants. "I'm sure you kind folks won't forget to mention that."
The man in the wagon turned and nodded in Louse's direction. "O-of course we won't." His wife whispered something in his ear, but he shrugged her off and grumbled something under his breath.
"Excellent." Louse ran a gloved hand through his slicked brown hair, sheathing his blade as they began to approach the Pyran outpost. He turned to Vez and flashed her a smile. "So, where does my little ruby want to go after this trip comes to an end?"
Vez blushed upon hearing the affectionate nickname. Louse had been calling her 'my little ruby' for years, and it never failed to make her smile, even against her will. "I'd like to spend some time in the Valley... but I also want to see Pyrus. Oh, and maybe one of those mountain cities in Bross!" There were so many places that she had heard about during her upbringing in Goldenreach, she found herself unable to decide where to go first.
"Right, well that narrows it down." He reached a hand out and began to ruffle her hair, but she quickly responded by playfully swatting at his arm. In the corner of her eye, Vez could see the merchant woman watching them with an odd sort of admiration. She knew what their companions were thinking; people often mistook Vez and Louse for a couple, a pair of adventurous young lovers wandering the world together. In truth, they had been so much like brother and sister as children that it had always felt strange trying to think of Louse as anything else. The thought crossed Vez's mind more often than she cared to admit, though, and as they grew up she had begun to notice Louse's eyes wandering to the curved parts of her body. He was strikingly handsome as well, she knew, but sometimes when she looked at him she still saw the scrawny little orphan boy who he had once been. Perhaps later, she would always end up concluding in her thoughts, when the two could settle down and find somewhere to live.
The towers and trees grew larger and larger as they walked, while the patches of dull brown grass became greener and thicker. As they finally began to approach the two watchtowers, four heavily armored guards stepped out to meet them. They were covered head to toe in plated mail, with the Arc draped over their breastplates and pothelms on their heads. Vez's first reaction was to search for weak points, even though she had no desire to fight these men; it was simply instinct for her to always be prepared. They would tire quickly from the combination of midday heat and the weight of their armor, so Vez and Louse had the advantage of sheer speed. Still, the guards outnumbered them, held tall spears, and at their belts hung longswords and daggers, enough equipment to fight proficiently at any range. Vez had only throwing knives outside of close quarters, and those ran out quickly enough. She felt uneasy knowing that the odds were against them, but managed to hide her nerves behind the goggles.
"Wagon empty?" One of the guards called out to the merchants, stepping forward casually. His tone suggested that they weren't the first travellers to have come through that day, nor the most exciting.
"Yes sir, just me and my wife." The husband called down dutifully. His head was held high with a certain pride as he spoke to his fellow Pyran; a sharp contrast to the expression Vez had seen on his face during the bandit attack.
The guard nodded beneath his heavy helmet, then turned to look at Vez and Louse. "And you two? Hired protectors?"
"Mercenaries." Growled one of the men behind him. "Can't be too sure about these ones." He stepped ahead of the first guard and pointed at Vez, who resisted the overwhelming urge to move a hand to the hilt of her sword. "You there, red girl. Where are you and your companion from?" His voice was deep, and sounded metallic as it rang through his helmet.
Vez decided to lift her goggles before speaking to the man. She had learned over the years that pale purple eyes like hers had a tendency to charm even the most strong-willed of males. "Bazaar. Yes, we are mercenaries. We are escorting these people home." She kept her voice at a softer pitch when she needed to be persuasive, to create an illusion of innocence rather than deadliness. Louse would be fighting back a sneer by now, she knew; he loved seeing her put on this act, and she hated how much he loved it.
"Fair enough." The guard hesitated for a moment, his eyes concealed behind the narrow slit in his helmet. "Either of you heard of a man named Vyrias?" His voice sounded darker and more serious all of a sudden.
Vez was familiar with the name, as was Louse. Word of Vyrias and his rebels had been circulating through Goldenreach for quite some time; some elusive cutthroat with a pack of commoners at his command. They hid among the villagers and townsfolk, blending in impeccably due to that fact that they were also villagers and townsfolk. A few rumors had come and gone about the crafty rebel's plans for King Raymond, but most were certainly exaggerated, or fabricated entirely. "No, is he from Bazaar?" Came Vez's reply, short and sweet. She did not intend on these guards keeping her here to fish for information about their implacable enemy.
The guard shook his head. "Never mind, go on through." He waved a hand dismissively and the four men returned to their towers. Louse gave a subtle thumbs-up to Vez, shrugging his eyebrows as they walked between the tall stone cylinders and beyond into Westcliffe.
For the next hour, the trip remained uneventful. The merchants offered for Vez and Louse to sit in the back of the wagon for the dozenth time, but they respectfully refused. The lush green of the trees and foliage and grass began to close in around them, and the blistering heat faded away as the road passed beneath the shade of the leaves. Vez closed her eyes and took it all in, inhaling the sweet, rich scents of nature. The path began to rise and fall gently as it travelled over the first few verdant hills of Westcliffe; the smaller ones, compared to the mountainous, rocky heights from which the region took its name. Most of the great cities of the Pyran Arc were built strategically on cliffs that allowed clear vision and control of the surrounding area. Pyrus itself stood at the edge of a three-hundred foot drop, Vez had heard, though she'd never seen it with her own eyes.
"Hey, help!" A sudden cry from the woods drew Vez out of her daydream. She looked off to her left, scanning the trees, trying to find the source of the voice. "Up here!" It called again, and when Vez looked up, she nearly burst out laughing. There was a man hanging upside-down from a tree branch, tied at the feet by a length of thick rope. Louse saw him too, and voiced the utter confusion that Vez was feeling.
"How the hell did you get up there, friend?" He strolled up to the dangling man, his head tilted curiously to one side.
"Let me down and I'll tell you."
Louse hesitated, then patted the man down to make sure he was unarmed. "Seems harmless enough to me." He drew his dagger and sawed at the rope around the man's ankles until it snapped, and the man fell headfirst to the soft soil beneath, breaking his fall with an acrobatic roll. Louse stepped back, visibly impressed. "Fancy, aren't we?"
The other man brushed the dirt off of his clothes as he got to his feet. "Thank you very much. Must have spent an hour up there." He nodded at Vez and Louse each in turn before putting a hand on his chest. "I am Sam. Roving Sam, most call me." He gestured back at the rope, grimacing. "Stumbled into a trap set by a couple of hunters. They weren't too friendly. Tied me up here and took all of my stuff." He started touching his clothes in strange places, as if he were checking to see if anything had been left behind by the robbers. He was a plain man, the type with a forgettable face and no outstanding features. His hair was short and brown, his head round-shaped, his expression blank and bored, despite having just been rescued from such an uncomfortable situation. He was dressed in a loose, long-sleeved navy blue tunic that appeared to be too large for him, and baggy brown pants covered in pockets.
"Roving Sam? Why do they call you that?" Louse asked, his eyes alive with amusement.
"Well, because. I er... I rove. You know, I move around. What do they call you?"
"And why do they call you that?"
"I'm quick, subtle, and I leave my opponents scratching their heads. If I leave them with heads at all, that is." Louse gave a winning wink to Roving Sam, who remained indifferent.
"Oh. Well, they took my stuff, so I suppose I'll have to go find new stuff." Abruptly, Roving Sam strode past them to the path, and began walking in the direction of Goldenreach.
"Wait, stuff? What do you mean? Is it really safe to be going off on your own unarmed?" Louse called out to Sam, jogging after the man who seemed so eager to get back to roving.
"Stuff. All kinds of stuff, useful stuff. I get it from all over the place, it comes in handy. I owe you one, so you'll get to see it some day. And don't worry about me, I can handle whatever comes my way, even without my stuff. Goodbye now." He nodded at Louse again, then continued to walk off down the road. Just as they were about to turn around and head in the opposite direction, Roving Sam paused and turned back to face Vez. "Nice goggles."
Last edited by Rowle; 08-11-2013 at 09:54 AM.
Envoy's Camp - The Rim - Hazel Valley
Thin tendrils of smoke drifted up into the air from the campsite at the foot of the hill, dispersing in the crisp afternoon sky. Dryadel stood on the ridge overlooking the sprawling plains below, watching the blades of grass dance in unison with each gust of wind. Behind him, his companions muttered amongst themselves; five of them, all hand-picked and well-seasoned rangers like himself. Xavier had made sure that only the most elite of the Wood Elves were entrusted with the task at hand, and he had chosen Dryadel to lead the small squad out into Hazel Valley. They were to meet up with a diplomatic envoy who had been sent by King Raymond, along with a small band of Pyrans and Valley Elves who were accompanying him on the journey. Xavier, the stern leader of the Wood Elves, meant to ensure that the emissary would be safely escorted through the Barrier Woods by his finest soldiers; a very wise maneuver that displayed both respect and power to the Pyran Arc.
The faces of the men and women that accompanied Dryadel were familiar ones, and belonged to the deadliest bowmen and most agile hand-to-hand combatants he had ever known. Crux had been the first to respond to Xavier's call, a grizzled old hunter with moon-colored hair and a matching longbow. After had come Ren and Iris, devious twin sisters who Dryadel knew to be Xavier's preferred method of quietly sending his opponents to the grave. Zane had followed soon after, better known as Redwood for his unusual height, physical mass, and thick auburn hair. The final arrival had been Laurel, a short, slight mute with unwavering loyalty and an affinity for stealth. Lastly, there was Dryadel himself; second-in-command to Xavier, and the greatest archer the Barrier Woods had seen in generations. His people called him the Viper, an affectionate nickname that represented his love of poisons. He kept vials of acidic arrow coating, pouches full of poisonous dust, herbs that he would chew up and spit out as a toxic spray. He firmly believed he was aware of every different type of poison known to man, and had used each one to claim a kill, from the agonizingly slow to the unbelievably quick. Dryadel had even concocted some of his own unique mixtures, and they had proven to be quite effective on the battlefield.
"We should leave the Pyran to his own devices. If he cannot traverse the Barrier Woods on his own, he is unfit to seek audience with Xavier." Redwood's voice grumbled from behind Dryadel. He turned to face his companions, who were waiting for his command to descend the hillside to the camp below. Ren and Iris were whispering to one another under their breath, their jet-black hair two stark shadows against the emerald backdrop. Laurel the Mute was sitting cross-legged in the grass, sharpening one of his daggers with intense focus. Crux and Redwood were speaking loudly about their objections to the mission, something that they did all too often. Both seemed to think that the Wood Elves were playing right into Raymond's hands, setting themselves up to have their land and people exploited. "Today they bring us this alliance, tomorrow they saw down our trees and use them as firewood. I trust no Pyran." Zane continued, while Crux shrugged his eyebrows and grunted in agreement.
Dryadel cleared his throat and shot an unimpressed stare in the direction of the two. "It is not for you to decide who we align ourselves with. Our task lies before us, and we will see it through." He declared in a voice that permitted no argument. Redwood and Crux exchanged a brief look, but spoke no more, and the others stopped to listen as well. "Let's head for the camp. We will introduce ourselves to the envoy, meet whomever else is with him, treat them as friends and depart when they are prepared." He glanced at each of them for a heartbeat, allowing a small pause for any comments. They all agreed as silently as Laurel, and turned to proceed down the dew-dusted slope. The sun was hovering above the valley floor to the west, preparing to submerge beneath the horizon and setting a soft sheen into Dryadel's pale golden hair. The six of them moved briskly, constantly scanning their surroundings out of habit despite the vast emptiness that stretched out before them. This place was known as the Rim, the highlands that marked the edge of Hazel Valley. Off in the distance behind the Elves stood the treeline of the Barrier Woods, the enormous thicket of stubborn sentinels that they called home, severing the Valley off from the Swamplands to the east. To the north were the glacial Mountains of Bross, where the even more stubborn Dwarves resided within their frigid homes and mines. Far to the south was Parch, the dreaded wasteland where the eternal rivals of the Wood Elves lived; the Orcs. Each of the members of Dryadel's unit had slain at least two dozen of the monstrosities, and the Viper himself had lost track of his own body count.
The ground flattened beneath the Wood Elves as they reached the bottom of the hill, and they strode into the modest camp where they were to join forces with the envoy. Dryadel counted six large tents, most plain and brown, with one that stood out due to its splendid red and blue coloring. A fire crackled in the center, where a handful of Pyrans and Valley Elves had gathered to eat, drink, and share stories. Much to his discomfort, the Viper noticed that none of them had taken the liberty to stand watch or patrol the perimeter, and they hardly noticed the party entering their territory until Crux gave a shrill whistle that caught their attention. Most were young and carried the innocent aura of inexperience, though by Dryadel's standards, there were very few people alive who could be considered experienced. The Valley Elves were clad in light leather and cloth, as was their custom, while the Pyrans wore odd bits and pieces of their heavier metal armor. Bows and quivers and gauntlets and spears and swordbelts were strewn across the ground, giving clear indication that few, if any, of the so-called guards were armed. Dryadel frowned, and walked past them after allowing a stiff nod and a flat "Carry on." It boiled his temper when none of them so much as raised a hand to stop the Wood Elves from entering the envoy's tent, but he took a deep breath and pushed through the flap.
The inside of the tent was warm and awash in the glow of several fat white candles. A bright-eyed, middle aged man with thinning brown hair and traces of soft wrinkles sat on a pillow on one side, dressed in loose travelling clothes that bore the golden Pyran Arc sigil on the breast. Opposite him were two attentive Valley Elves; one who appeared to be close to Dryadel's age, the other much younger, and both with honey-colored hair and green eyes. The three of them turned to face the squad of Wood Elves as they entered, and the Pyran man bounded to his feet. "Excellent! You must be our escort." He shuffled over to shake the hand of each of the newcomers in turn, smiling confidently before stepping back and clapping his hands together. "I am Horace Clayton, diplomatic representative of King Raymond Terry and the glorious nation of the Pyran Arc. Might I ask your names?"
Dryadel raised a hand and gestured at each of his companions in turn. "Laurel, the silent wind of the woodlands. Ren and Iris, the twin faces of death. Crux, the white wilder, master of the hunt. Zane, called Redwood, the titan of the forest. I am Dryadel, the Viper, loyal guardian of Xavier and First Ranger of the Barrier Woods. We are here to see you safely to Sundravale." His tone was calm and respectful, though he was mildly bothered by the envoy's fixed grin and exaggerated pleasantries.
"I am deeply pleased to finally meet all of you. Allow me to introduce my friends; Erren, the diligent scout-captain of my Elvish accomplices, and Leysen, his prodigious eldest son." Horace bowed off to the side as the two Valley Elves stood to face their forest-dwelling brethren. Erren was the taller of the two, with an unsmiling face that was scarred above the right eyebrow by what appeared to be a knife wound. Leysen stood a head shorter than his father, with a smoother complexion and a less toned physique. There was an unspoken rapport between the two groups, as there had always been with Valley and Wood Elves; the residents of the Barrier Woods had never willingly communicated with anyone other than their lowland neighbors, or at least not until this Pyran alliance was proposed. Father and son each placed a hand on their breast and nodded in unison, an age-old symbol of respect that Dryadel appreciated and reciprocated.
"Dryadel, I have heard your name woven through tales ever since I was my son's age. It is an honor to make your acquaintance." Erren said in a low, raspy tone. His son remained silent, but the boy's eyes were wide with awe as he beheld the six legendary Wood Elves before him.
"That is very kind of you to say. I am sure we will become good friends during the travels ahead." His lips formed a sincere smile for a moment, then he looked back at Horace, who was still grinning smugly. "Will we be leaving in the morning?"
The envoy began nodding rapidly in a way that made him look like some sort of ruffled bird. "Of course, of course! We will break our fast bright and early, then venture out into the magnificent Barrier Woods. Oh, won't this be exciting?"
Dryadel tried to feign the same enthusiasm. "It certainly will, I should hope." He struggled to keep his expression positive as a morbid thought crossed his mind; the forest will eat this man alive.
Last edited by Rowle; 08-11-2013 at 10:06 AM.
Deserter Encampment - Conqueror's Plateau - Parch
A nerve-splitting shockwave reverberated up Greesh's arm as his battleaxe met the rusted helmet on his opponent's head. The impact left a massive dent, and blood began to leak down the disoriented victim's forehead, but still he fought on. Greesh leapt back as the wounded foe swung his sickle in a broad arc, back and forth, feebly trying to land a blow. The two Orcs had been fighting for nearly a full minute, which was a long time for anyone who dared to stand against Greesh, yet he was still unscathed. He waited, axe at the ready, dodging his enemy's slashes as they became slower and slower, until finally he saw an opening and hacked down through the wrist of his adversary. Blood spurted from the stump and the other Orc fell to his knees, his weapon still clutched in his severed hand as it thumped to the ground. Greesh heaved his arms back and unleashed a devastating overhead strike, this time cleaving through helmet, hair, scalp, skull, and brain. Bits of pink and red and white sprayed through the air, covering Greesh's weapon with grisly decorations.
Before he had time to recover, a battle roar from behind stole Greesh's attention. He tore his axe free from the chasm he had left in the corpse's head, and spun to see a particularly ferocious one-eyed Orc charging at him with a hatchet in one hand and a hunting knife in the other. He unleashed a terrifying war cry of his own, raising his weapon to meet his new opponent. The struggle began with a flurry of quick, cruel strikes from the hatchet, each deflected by the head of Greesh's own axe, followed by a wild, frustrated stab with the knife. Greesh sidestepped it, then drove the butt of his weapon into the elbow of his foe, sending the hunting knife spinning across the grey wasteland floor. He tried to follow through with an upward slash, but the other Orc caught the shaft of the axe with his free hand and countered with a powerful gut kick. Greesh stumbled backward, yanking his battleaxe free from his enemy's grasp, and was caught in the cheek by a glancing blow from the hatchet. Infuriated, he dove forward, tackling the one-eyed Orc and bringing him to the ground with a crash. The two grabbed at each other's arms and faces for a moment, fighting desperately to take control, but Greesh succeeded in delivering two crushing punches to the jaw of his opponent. He reached over to where the knife had fallen, fumbling to get a grip, then plunging it down toward the remaining eye of its former owner. The fallen Orc grabbed his hand at the last second, resisting with all his strength as the point of the blade pressed closer and closer, until Greesh threw all of his weight into one last push and buried the steel in the soft white jelly.
Greesh rolled off and scrambled to his feet, collecting his axe off the ground and preparing for a final attack, but the blinded Orc could do nothing more than curse and writhe in the dirt. The victor took a hard-earned breath, then turned to survey the tide of the battle. The sounds of steel clashing and gore splashing were still echoing through the air, but everywhere he looked, he saw his side winning. Uldur was taking on two Orcs at once, and decapitated them both with one immense sweep; Ox had lost his mace somewhere in the fray, and now appeared to be fighting with two spears; Black Bolt had scaled the skull of some ancient, half-buried behemoth and was raining crossbow quarrels down on the battlefield. Left and right, deserters were collapsing beneath the onslaught of the Molten Army, their blood quenching the thirst of the great wasteland. He charged forward again, bulling down one of the last foes still standing, who had been struggling to fend off a flurry of blows from one of Greesh's allies. The Orc hit the ground with a pained grunt, sending up a chalky cloud of dust and skidding to a stop on his back. His eyes widened with horror as he looked up to see Greesh towering over him, axe held high, poised to deliver the death blow. The fallen deserter opened his mouth to cry out, but before he could begin to plead for mercy, the blade descended and hacked a deep gash down the middle of his face.
As he ripped his weapon out of the twitching corpse, Greesh heard the few remaining sounds of combat fade away, punctuated by a series of agonized screams and gruesome crunches. He found that his bloodlust had died with the last deserter, so he dropped his weapon and went to sit down next to the giant skull, leaning his head back against the yellowed bone. Black Bolt hopped down from his vantage point, landing a few feet away from him. He grinned, revealing a slimy set of sharp grey teeth, and gave Greesh a friendly nudge with the toe of his boot. "Successful raid. This should make the rest of those traitorous bastards think twice about staying loyal to Kludd." He laughed, a deep gravelly sound that would strike fear into the hearts of anyone but another Orc. Greesh said nothing, but stared at the barren ground, lost in thought. Black Bolt frowned and kicked him slightly harder, as if trying to wake him up. "What's wrong with you? Didn't get as many kills as you wanted? I shot down eight myself, one of them right between the eyes."
Greesh shut his eyes tight and shook his head. "I don't want to hear about it. This isn't something to be proud of, it is something we must do. If anything, you should feel remorse. These were our brothers once." He gazed out at the carnage; disembodied limbs, butchered heaps of flesh and muscle, organs strewn across the dirt, already drawing the attention of a few vultures who had begun to circle overhead. The deserters were a growing group of Orcs who had chosen to abandon the rule of Gourok, and instead followed a bloodthirsty maniac known as Kludd the Reaver. It was their belief that Gourok's leadership was weak, because he had not led any invasions in close to three years. The deserters mocked him, saying that he had been tamed by the Pyrans, while boasting that under Kludd's command they would take the Barrier Woods by storm and exterminate the Wood Elf population. Greesh knew this was foolish and reckless, and that Gourok was simply biding his time and waiting for the right moment to strike, but that moment could not come so long as the deserters kept stealing from his ranks. Furthermore, Kludd's forces had begun to take control of the northwestern areas of Parch, including the Conqueror's Plateau that had been the base point for all Orcish invasions to the north and west for generations. Gourok's response was to attack the deserters directly, sending a stalwart force of soldiers to weaken their perimeter and hopefully intimidate Kludd into backing down.
Black Bolt's face twisted into a look of revulsion. "Brothers? These are no brothers of mine." He hoisted up his crossbow, loaded a quarrel, and fired it at the lifeless body of a nearby deserter. It struck the back of the dead Orc's head, lodging deep in his skull. "That's what I think of these deserters. They are scum, Greesh. Weak links who will do nothing but hold our kind back from the dominion that is our birthright. I'll kill every last one of them before I feel any remorse." He wiped a glob of saliva away from his mouth with the back of his hand.
Greesh took a deep, frustrated breath. "I don't care what they believe or what they've done, they are our own kind. Every corpse that comes out of this rivalry is that of an Orc, regardless of their allegiance. Our true enemy is out there." He raised a hand and pointed north, off in the direction of the Barrier Woods. "We will not gain power by waging civil war and slaughtering our own numbers. There must be another way." He pressed his palm up against his forehead, sliding his fingers through his thin wisps of black hair.
"Another way? You think Kludd the Reaver is going to sit down and negotiate with us? He would see every single one of his backstabbing followers drown in their own blood before he turned to diplomacy." Black Bolt's triumphant mood had died and given way to one of genuine concern and anger. "We have our orders. Disobey them and you're just as bad as one of those deserters, Greesh." His tone was threatening, and he gave one last glare of disappointment before turning and walking away. Greesh sighed, resting his head back against the giant skull once more. For a brief moment he had time to think clearly and take everything into consideration, but he was soon interrupted again; this time by Uldur, their oversized commander. His shadow washed over Greesh, blocking out the sun as he approached.
"No time to sleep, Greesh. We're taking their supply crates and moving on to another encampment due east. The scouts say it's less fortified than this one, but we will still wait and attack in the morning light. On your feet." He reached a mailed hand down to pull Greesh up, his immense strength making the tired Orc feel as light as a feather. The two of them walked back to the main group, where the soldiers were at work loading the wagons up with crates full of rations, weapons, armor, and other goods that the deserters had stolen from captured outposts and intercepted supply lines. These supplies were invaluable to the soldiers during their campaign, and helped to keep them well-fed and stocked. Greesh joined in the efforts, lifting two and three crates at a time and carrying them back to the wagons, which were pulled along by a variety of hulking animals, from buffalo to rhinoceros. It was difficult to find beasts large enough to draw a cart in Parch, so the Orcs were known to use whatever they could get their hands on, including stolen animals from other lands. As he worked, Greesh couldn't help but notice Black Bolt giving him strange looks, and soon after there were other soldiers staring at him as well. He knew what was going on; Black Bolt was spreading rumors about him, and in such uncertain times, rumors caught on quickly. Everyone was on edge about deserters, seeing as so many of their friends and family members had fled to join Kludd, so they were quick to bare their teeth at any sign of a traitor among them. Greesh kept his eyes low and endured the dagger-sharp eyes as they burned into his back, trudging along while silently hoping that it would all be cleared up on the morrow.
Uldur's avalanche of a voice boomed out over the encampment as the last of the crates were packed away. "There are more of these treacherous pigs posted to the east. That is where we will go. Securing the Plateau is our goal, whether it means we find Kludd or not. We will travel now, camp and rest on a ridge that the scouts have cleared, then attack at the break of daylight. No prisoners." With that curt speech, the wagons were whipped into motion, and the soldiers of the Molten Army set out to hunt down another pack of deserters.
The Hexxer's Cave - Everdusk Thicket - R'ulu (Islands of the Emerald Tide)
The gentle, rhythmic sounds of the jungle surrounded Zella as she padded through the brush. A chorus of crickets and cicadas underscored the distant squawking of exotic birds and the soft rustle of branches and leaves overhead. Her feet kept a steady beat, leather sandals crunching down into grass and twigs and soil with each step. She felt calm here, where it was as if she was the only human being alive, immersed completely in the flow of nature. Telji stalked along beside her, his head low, his golden eyes wary for prey. Some time earlier, he had vanished into the trees suddenly, bounding after some unfortunate critter that his predatory senses had located. He had returned moments later with a small, bloody lump of fur and flesh gripped firmly between his jaws. She had spent so much time hunting with Telji that she no longer felt sorry for the tiny creature; it was simply the cycle of life, the way of the food chain. They had stopped for a few minutes then, giving the leopard ample time to tear the fresh kill open and feast on the raw red meat within. By the time they continued travelling, Telji had left behind nothing more than a pile of small bones and hair.
Zella turned her head to the sky, but found herself facing a dense canopy of wood and swaying leaves instead. This place was called the Everdusk Thicket for a reason; the trees pressed so close here that the sun could rarely be seen, creating the illusion that it was always night. She had set out on her excursion bright and early that day, with the intent of getting to the Hexxer's Cave and back before sunset. She had asked around Jade Harbor about the length of the trip the day before, and most of the locals assured her that she would be able to make it back with about an hour of daylight to spare, depending on how long she intended on staying. Zella did not know how long it would take her to sway the Hexxer to her will; he was known for being fickle with his powers, and was said to give out advice much more often than curses. Still, she felt that it was her duty to seek out his aid, as she knew of no other way to rid Jade Harbor of its corruption. Surely she could not approach the Pyrans and accuse them of the crime she had witnessed, lest she meet the same fate as the Skinned Man to keep her from spreading the truth. Most of the residents of the Harbor believed that it was the natives themselves doing all of the killing, but Zella the Fanged knew better. She was afraid even to tell her own tribesmen, as she knew that they would either refuse to believe her or lash out at the Pyrans, neither of which would help the situation one bit. Instead, she had settled on an alternative solution; she meant to seek out Koss the Hexxer.
Koss was fabled throughout the Isles, for he was blessed by the great gods above with powerful magic. He could communicate with the deities of wind and tide and earth, carry out their wishes, and reveal the fates of other men and women. Some said that he could even weave spells from his hands, firing lightning from his palms or closing wounds with healing energy. Zella was not sure that she believed all of those claims, but he was certainly a wise man by all accounts, and offered his aid to anyone who sought him out, provided that the gods did not judge them as evil. Many wished to use his powers to bring curses down upon their foes, but Koss rarely obliged, and instead provided options of resolution and friendship rather than rivalry and war. This was different, though, as Zella had seen true evil in the eyes of the yellow-haired Pyran, and she knew that the Hexxer would agree that his soul must be punished. In some part of her, she felt afraid of the man she was about to approach, for she truly knew very little of him. Perhaps he would judge her as evil, and transform her into a frog or curse her with a disease of the flesh. No, that was surely an unfounded fear, Zella thought, knowing in her heart that the true evil burned in the murderous Pyran man.
As the ground slowly raised to form a slope, Zella found herself stepping into a small clearing, where thin beams of light pierced through the roof of the jungle to decorate the air with dancing motes and flecks of dust. Before her was a great stone cave, a roaring mouth opening in the rocky hillside, and within she could see the faint flicker of flames dancing off the walls. He would be in there, she knew, perhaps in the middle of a prayer or a ritual. She hesitated, resting a hand on Telji's soft head for assurance, then took a deep breath and walked forth. The thick grey walls of stone swallowed her up, ushering her into the dimly lit darkness. "Hello?" She called out, her voice sounding like that of a little girl as it escaped her lips. It echoed off the cavern walls, and for a moment there was no response, and her heart began to thump nervously in her chest.
"Come in, girl." A deep, raspy voice answered. Slowly, Zella moved deeper into the cave and around a corner, where the dancing flames came into view. Behind them stood a hunched, pale man with a wild tangle of dark blue hair. His face and body were covered in various paints and dyes, and his only clothing was a meagre loincloth that barely concealed him. Zella froze, staring into the shimmering black pits of his eyes, which were surrounded by a thick mask of paint that looked to be the same shade of blue as his hair. "A formidable beast you have. You are very lucky, as the Fanged god has smiled upon you. Stand by the fire." His words rumbled from his dry lips, stern but soothing. Zella and Telji approached the warmth of the blaze, which flickered with a strange, mystic glow. It took a moment for the young huntress to realize that no smoke was rising off of it, and she felt a sense of wonder course through her body. "You come to me with uneasiness, with fury and despair. What is your name?"
"Zella. This is Telji... he is my friend." She glanced down at the leopard, who was staring intently and curiously at the Hexxer. Koss seemed unafraid, but merely nodded at the beast respectfully. "I... I come to ask you to curse an evil man." Even as the words tumbled out, she knew they sounded foolish.
"I see. The world is filled with evil men, did you know? We need them, for without evil, there would be no good." His eyes drank the light of the fire, bottomless holes sunken into his face. She felt herself shiver, though the cave was thick with warmth. "What causes you to name this man evil?"
"He kills our people. He is one of the white men from far away, and they say that they wish to make peace, but they are killing us. He shows no respect, no honor for the dead, but leaves them to rot." Zella's face flushed and her eyes began to burn, threatening that a rush of tears was close, but she fought them back. She would not weep in front of Koss the Hexxer, or else she would seem weak.
"I see. Step closer, and close your eyes. I wish to know this man as well." The painted man's voice sounded like the command of some ancient, weathered god. Reluctantly, Zella circled slowly around the fire until she was face to face with Koss. He was staring deep into her eyes and beyond into her soul, and his breath smelled of mold as it washed over her in steady waves. The heart of the young huntress was racing, pounding so hard that she could hear nothing else, and she knew that he sensed it. "Calm yourself, fanged girl. I must see through your mind to learn how the gods will judge this man." Shaking, Zella managed to force her eyes shut, clenching them there despite all of her instincts and fears screaming for her to open them, to run away, to never come back to this cave. She felt one of the Hexxer's fingers resting on each eyelid, rough and callused. "Now search for the man in your thoughts, picture his form, remember what you saw him do." His fingertips vibrated against her skin as he spoke. Zella imagined the Pyran in as vivid detail as she could, standing there in the alley with his slick blonde hair and his groomed barb of a beard. The pale moonlight was reflecting from his cold blue eyes, and from the dark blood that covered his face and armor and sword. Her breathing became heavy with rage, and she suddenly began to panic as she replayed the incident over and over in her head, watching the pommel crush through the skull of the Skinned Man. Koss took his hand away just as Zella opened her mouth, loosing a feeble yelp. A low growl came from Telji, who was hesitating to bare his teeth.
The Hexxer stepped back, his eyebrows furrowed in a perplexed expression. "Resk..." His voice came in a slow, quiet hiss toned with a mix of curiosity and confusion. He turned back to the fire and squatted, gazing deep into the flames, his eyes darting to and fro.
"Resk? Is that his name?" Zella asked, still trying to control her breath after the overwhelming surge of memory.
"Yes, but... He is shrouded. I cannot see this man." Koss had concern in his voice, and suddenly seemed much less intimidating and much more vulnerable.
"Shrouded? What do you mean?" Zella felt completely lost, eager for answers.
"I sense him, I know he is there, but the gods will not show him to me; or perhaps they cannot. He is... hidden." Koss stood up abruptly and strode to the other side of the fire before crouching down once more and continuing his frantic search. "It could be that I am simply not meant to interfere with the fate of this man, but... there is something dark at work here. Something evil. I have sensed it before, but never so close, so powerful." He turned his head up to look at Zella, his blue hair swaying with the motion. "I am afraid I cannot help you."
Zella felt her insides wrench, flooded with frustration and disappointment. "Then that is it? You will allow him to continue his atrocities because, what, he is too evil?"
"I am powerless to stop him, unfortunately. If the gods conceal the soul of this man from me, then I must accept their will." His eyes were sheer onyx glass, motionless as he contemplated his mystic fire of souls and gods. "However..." The Hexxer's eyes narrowed slightly, and then he was back on his feet in an instant. Zella heard his knees crack painfully as his legs straightened, covered in varicose veins. "It may be that I am not the one to bring judgement to this evil man - this Resk - but someone else could be. What about you, girl?" He was looking at her in a new way, sizing her up with approval. "Perhaps the gods intend for you to be his fate. Their eyes are upon you, I knew this from the moment you entered my cave." He examined Telji for a long, quiet moment. The leopard made no challenge, no movement whatsoever, but simply stared back.
Zella's expression shifted from confused to afraid. She could not imagine facing Resk again. "You think I should kill him? I don't even know where to find him, and surely he'll be with other guards, and it would be breaking the law of the Harbor, and it might cause trouble for my people, and-"
"And it is what must be done." Koss interrupted, laying a stiff hand on her shoulder. "You know this as well as I do, as well as the gods do. You came to me seeking someone capable of vanquishing an evil man, and I have found one for you. Her name is Zella the Fanged."