Introducing Aaron Frey. Get his portrait here, his tune here and his story here
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Take a lil' walk to the edge of town Go across the tracks Where the viaduct looms, like a bird o' doom As it shifts and cracks Where secrets lie in the border fires, in the hummin' wires Hey man, you know you ain't ever coming back Past the square, past the bridge, past the mills, past the stocks On a gatherin' storm comes a tall handsome man In a dusty black coat with a red right hand
He'll wrap you in his arms, tell you that you've been a good boy He'll rekindle all the dreams it took you a lifetime to destroy He'll reach deep into the hole, heal your shrinkin' soul Hey boyo, you know you ain't never ever comin' back He's a god, He's a man, He's a ghost, He's a guru They're whisperin' his name through this disappearin' land But hidden in his coat is a red right hand
You ain't got no gold? He'll get you some You ain't got no coat? He'll get you one You ain't got no self-respect, you feel like an insect Well don't you worry boyo, cause here he comes Through the docks and the alleys and the bowery and the slum A shadow is cast wherever he stands Stacks o' gold an' gems in his red right hand
You'll see him in your nightmares, you'll see him in your dreams He'll appear out of nowhere but he ain't what he seems You'll see him in your head, on the black-night sky And hey boyo, I'mma warnin' you to look away He's a god, he's a man, He's a ghost, He's a guru You're one microscopic cog in his catastrophic plan Designed and directed by his red right hand
He's mumblin' words with a black-heart scowl He's mumblin' words 'neath his black-cloth cowl
He's mumblin' words you ain't understand He's mumblin' words raisin' his red right hand.
A handful of times in my life I'd come face to face with the Bitch-Who-Waits-on-the-Other-Side, made my peace with the thought of enterin' the next world or just reconciled myself with the thought of bein' worm food. A handful of times I'd been brought back from the brink, given another chance to make things right, or, knowin' myself, make the same mistakes all over again. And in those mind-daze moments, as you stutter back from the edge, lemme tell you, things look different – ain't look better, but more vivid, the shit-smeared streets and alleys brighter, the smells wafting in from the gutter more pungent. Ain't ever come closer to that brink than when I fought in the Great War. Ain't was my intention to; my wars are fought elsewhere and they're much more dangerous. But I got caught red-handed and had to make a deal with the fat man on Kampfer's throne. Be his eyes an' ears in the Watch. And so I donned the vandal cap and fought my own city kin, puttin' blades and hatchets in the skulls of men I'd prolly grown up alongside. Fate can be a bitch like that.
It would be an exaggeration to say that the man in the black coat and the vandal helm had any great affection for war, but if hard pressed he'd probably single out that period where men (and beasts and angels and devils and dragons) weren't killing each other as being the least horrible. It was brief, lasting only the few days it took to march from the Watch to Crater Lake. But it was still an awful, awful way to spend time – lost days with feet steeped in mud and grime, practising movements with pike and blade, off-hours listening to the chittering of the other idiots stupid enough to have enlisted. But still, it was gods-damned better than what came after. He didn't know it the morning of the battle that would forever dub Crater Lake as Blood Lake, of course. The man was under more than just a vague suspicion that the idiots marching alongside him had learned nothing more than to stand in a line and point their spears and crossbows the same direction, but then, often enough, such was often all that was required. The man's immediate superiors, some winged freaks who were no crack strategists themselves, encouraged this sort of thinking, indeed seemed to labour beneath it. A strange lethargy had spread through the ranks, from the officers, who drank and whored and gambled and generally made asses of themselves, to the man's regimental banner boy, who couldn't keep the damned pole from being blows sideways by the wind, twice hitting the man on the head. If the banner boy hadn't had wings the man in the black coat and the vandal cap would have decorated his adolescent patch of back hair with an axe. But doing that possibly meant incurring the wrath of the Bloodwinged, a dragon-kin general without equal in size or strength, and the man wasn't that daft.
The man was ordered to the vanguard, among the lowest rung on a long ladder of incompetence. It wasn't a position that much suited him. Or at all. The man figured that ultimately everyone danced on someone else's strings, but he preferred his less visible. It's impossible to maintain even the common pretense of free will when every drop of your energy is spent at the discretion of men you never see, who seem as far above you as Draxus and his feathered siblings – albeit possessed of a good deal less wisdom.
Still, swallowing pride was a good deal better than the battles that came. The man was born and bred in the gutter, in the black-blood streets and alleys of Lowtown. Killing men was a pastime he picked up since he knew to point a shank, a sport he perfected to brutal perfection. Death was not a stranger to the man, and he had seen his fair share of it. But that day, on the field of battle, he drowned his sight in so much terror that it would take him a lifetime to drink the memory out of his waking mind. There were so many corpses strewn about like broken and smoldering ragdolls - most so mutilated the man couldn't make out human from non-human, male from female - that from a distance the heaps of flesh resembled small mounds. Standing on some hill with a splendid view of the sanguine canvas below, the man blinked again and again, each time certain he would wake up from the nightmare. But the nightmare kept on coming in waves as unwitting soldiers threw themselves at each other, day and night. At some point the man resigned himself to it, hoping for the day the island had no more sons or daughters to offer for the culling. That day, should the man be so extraordinarily lucky to survive, he would return to Lowtown and never leave it. To all the hells with Bargus, Krel and whomever else felt they were entitled to pull the man's strings. Once back in Lowtown, everything would change.
Of course, when the man returned to Lowtown, having been so extraordinarily lucky to survive the Great War, he discovered that nothing at all had changed. Men were still killing each other at the whim of other men, and the world was no less steeped in shit and idiocy than it was before. On top of that, as proverbial icing on a dung-for-cake, the man found that in an abundant sense of gratitude, Bargus had repaid the man's services to the Crown by declaring the man a kill-on-sight outlaw. The fat man had even posted knight sentries inside the walls Lowtown, something the man thought was particularly insulting. Maybe the man just needed a good night's rest. Maybe things would clear up in the morning. Before he went to bed, the man didn't know that come the next day he would be neck-deep in brain-sucking squid-heads and their brain-sucking worms-for-pets. He didn't know that of all the colourful individuals on the island, he'd have to ask an exiled drow princess for help...
Introducing Talorhend Phlegethoninus/Leonhardt Grauer. Get his portrait here, his tune here and his story here
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Faust: "Who are you then?"
Mephistopheles: "I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good."
"I am the spirit that negates. And rightly so, for all that comes to be Deserves to perish wretchedly; 'Twere better nothing would begin. Thus everything that that your terms, sin, Destruction, evil represent— That is my proper element."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust - Part One
By the time the cowled man in the dusty black coat left his perch on the worn battlements the sun had clouded over like it was going to rain – it wasn’t, but it looked like it, and the day was that much hotter for the hope. The man threaded his way back through Lowtown, south past the Ogre and the Orphanage, skirting the docks, stopping midway down a side street a few blocks from a condemned warehouse. At his feet, Blind Pete, a reeking cloth wrapped around the top half of his rhul-ravaged face, begged alms in a loud and grating monotone. Had the beggar not been so loud the cowled man would have heard other sounds on the wind...
Unbeknownst to the man in the black coat, some dozen streets away, where Market Square intersects with River Pass, an unusual commotion was transpiring. Overhead clouds kept gathering as if they, like the throng of people elbowing their way back and forth in the commotion, had come to witness a spectacle. A storm rumbled in the distance. Portentously, perhaps. Two men were ploughing through the crowd and making their way toward the Grand Keep. One was of average height, a bland moustache over an undistinguished mouth. Neither fat nor thin. Neither light- nor dark-skinned. A face you thought you might have seen before but could not recall where. The other man was very much arresting in appearance, his mane of lustrous blonde hair framing an aristocratic face with the sort of perfect-cut features one ever only sees carved on marble statues. He was very tall and powerfully built, his strides so long and purposeful his companion had to run to keep up the pace. From afar the tall man would encourage wet panties in any passerby girl, or boy, but up-close he inspired only dread. It was his eyes. Both iris, pupil and sclera were so utterly black that staring into them was akin to staring into a void or drowning in a pit of tar. To add to the sensation of unease, and likely the cause of the commotion, both men were accoutred in a uniform that no Kreisman had seen outside condemning propaganda posters. Both men were Hellknights, and they were striding cross Steinkreis in broad daylight.
The garrulous crowd did not know it, but this was not the first time the tall man had set foot in their city. They did not know that ten years ago, he walked these streets with one of their own, Malaka Sako, then only a Knave. They did not know that five years ago when the tall man had earned the pride to wear Empyrean armour, they celebrated him and his sister when they smote Dwent Chambers on a hill overlooking their city. All the crowd knew was what they saw: Homines Infernum. Hellknights. Enforcers of the Iron Law accoutred in such terrifying armours they appeared more devil than man. Perhaps they were.
Passing across the bridge that connects Market Square with Kampfer's Way, the shorter man, a squire, turned to address his taller master.
"I am obliged to remind Mylord Talorhend that when last he visited this city, he was escorted to Blackrock at crossbow-point by Captain DuVall. We can still turn around."
"Do not dishonour your name, and mine, with fear, Squire Pravius. The Great War is over. The Iron Court is victorious. It is our duty to ensure the glories and victories of our peoples are made known to the rest of the island. And besides, we are ambassadors. Fair cultural and economic exchange is in both cities' interests."
"The Lord Regent may not agree, Mylord."
"Then we shall simply have to tempt him. After all, is that not what devils teach the best..."
Introducing Cassia Aurelia Renata Candidus. Get her tune here and her story here
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"Audi Iuppiter et patres nostros dique omnes caelstes vosque terrestres vosque inferni audite. Alea et nobis! Templarii ad portas!" Hear, O Jupiter, and you too, forefathers, and all the celestial, terrestrial and infernal gods, hear! Hear and help us. The templars are at the gates!
- Count Tritus before the capitulation of Cavilla to the Emperor of Telborea
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A Tattered Pamphlet, City of Telborea, Spring 53 PA (Post Ascencion), Roughly 10 Years Ago
"Who are the we, the Imperial Templars, you wonder? Folk like you and yours, I reply. The decent and decorous kind, gods-fearing men and women, dispellers of lies, doers of good. The kind who live according to the Gods' Laws, Nature's Laws and the laws that bid man be respecting unto his fellow. Those disgusted by the machinations of anti-imperialist usurpers, maleficarum mages and non-human degenerates. All that separates us from common folk is that we have the courage to take up arms, to defend the sacred sites of the Gods, to defend our lands, to defend you, from evil, to slice out the gangrene that eats us from within.
We derive no pride or gratification from our deeds, only a humble contendedness that we have pleased the Gods. We care not for wealth, recognition or land. We have no forts or estates. Though the Gods-fearing Imperator, honoured be His August Name, supports us with his gold, we have not sworn him nor any other ruler any oath, although His will often aligns with ours. We are beholden to the Divinities alone. We only serve Unconquerable Sun, the Light of Edification and Civilisation.
Who can join us? Any who is right of soul and sound of body. You can find us in every larger city in the Imperium. We will give you board, lodging and a weapon. We will explain how to spot the tell-tale signs of evil. We will instruct you how to squeeze a sinner'a darkest secrets out with divine fervor, and how to grant them cleansing death.
Stand up for the Gods, for your land, for your conscience, divest yourself of sin and fear, and serve a just cause to root up the degenerate elements of the land. Join the Templars today!"
- Cassia Aurelia Candidus
The earth and the sun seared her. It burnt her skin like a torturer's glowing irons. Cassia cleared her throat, hawked and spat out dry saliva. Her breath was caught mid-throat, a razor brushing against the insides of her trachea with sharp insistence. High above hung an enormous, golden, burning sun, turning the entire sky hazy orange, blurring visibility with its admonishing stare and making the air shimmer. The face of Sol, thought Cassia. Or Andarus. She closed her eyes. When again she opened her swollen, gummed-up eyelids, she sensed the heat had diminished some, and that the sun's orb had reddened and sunk lower but was still pouring its undulating, pulsating heat down on her. The heat, while diminished, was still largely unbearable. Cassia felt a tremendous weight on her shoulder. She had a large tombstone strapped to her back, dragging it along with faltering steps.
Cassia walked. And walked. After the first hour of walking, the wooden tombstone became unbearable to carry. After two hours, she was more limping than walking. Yet she walked on. Dusk fell quickly. The sun sank over a jagged horizon, and the sky lit up red and purple. As darkness fell, it became cold. At first, she greeted it with gladness, for the coolness soothed her sunburnt skin. Soon after, however, it became even colder and Cassia could barely feel her fingers and toes. The tombstone had her subdued to a near-crawl. She clenched her jaw and fists and picked up her pace, hoping that a vigorous pace would warm her up, but all the effort did was remind her of the terrible weight on her shoulders. She began to limp again. On top of that, the sun had completely sunk below the horizon and it was rapidly becoming dark. The moon, now and then eclipsed by circling shapes of devil-women, was new, and the stars twinkling in the sky were mute witnesses to Cassia's shuffling. She was soon unable to see the ground in front of her. She fell down several times, painfully grazing the skin on her wrists. Twice she caught her feet in clefts in some rock or ravine, and only sheer luck saved her from twisting or breaking an ankle. Yet Cassia walked on. Above the devil-women shrieked.
Day. Night. Scorching heat. Paralysing cold.
She sat down somewhere, feeling overwhelming fatigue. She had no idea if she was heading in the right direction. Had there even been a right direction to begin with? Dusk. Twilight. Darkness. Around her was nothing but velvety, viscous blackness. She felt she could reach out and touch it; drape it around herself like a mantle. The cold bit at her joints, forcing her to stoop and tuck her head down into her hunched shoulders. Cassia began to miss the sun, the face of Andarus, even though she realised its return would herald another onslaught of insufferable heat. Someone else, anyone else, would then surely have felt the urge to cry and scream, feel the wave of desperation and hopelessness crushing all hope from them. But not Cassia. She walked on.
They found her at the gates of Hamley at dawn. Her fellow Empyreans. They greeted her with respect and reverence, but she shuffled past them in shame. How could they bear the heat of day and the cold of night, she asked? Were they not unnerved by the screeching devil-women, she demanded? Could they not see she was carrying a tombstone strapped to her back, she wondered? But it was an ordinary Monday in late spring and the day was neither particularly warm nor particularly cold. There were no devil-women in Hamley that day, they assured her, nor had there been for a long time save Melphaecto's occasional visit. As for the tombstone on Cassia's back, all they could see was a woman in radiant armour.
But Cassia was suffering. The pain of the heat and the cold were the pain of her shame. The devil-women were unbidden memories that would drench her in sweat for many nights to come. And the tombstone on her back, that was a reminder of all the slain at the Siege of Iron City who had harkened to her call, then died because of it.
...and she walked on, a lone woman in a tattered robe, through sun and through rain, through wind and through snow. She walked until she could barely remember what it felt like to stand still. She walked past a myriad of landscapes; past rolling fields and meadows, past lakes stretching so far the eye couldn't see, past rivers and waterfalls, past hills and mountains. When finally she arrived where fate and conscience had decreed she arrive, she whispered a prayer - the first of a thousand prayers she would say that day - and went about the business that fate and conscience had decreed she do.
* * *
The point of her shovel bit into the ground with the sharp scrape of metal on earth. An all too familiar sound. It did not bite in far for all the effort she put behind it as the soil was rocky hard and baked by the sun. That same sun was scorching her neck and hands to blisters, but she was not to be deterred by a little warmth and a little hard soil. By then she had dug too many holes, so many she had stopped keeping count. The price of war, she thought. The price of not letting the sword stay in the scabbard. But when the sword does come out, when the fighting is over, you dig, if you're still alive. You dig graves for your dead comrades. A last mark of respect, however little you knew of them in life. You dig as deep as you can be bothered, you lay them in, you cover them up, you speak the prayers and you leave them until they rot away and forgotten, with weathered tombstones as mute witnesses. That's the way it's always been. That's the way it'll always be. The only difference now was that there were no bodies to inter, most Empyreans who partook in the Siege of the Iron Wall having perished to devil-fire until all that remained of the man or woman were deeds and memories. Yet she kept digging.
She flicked her shoulders and sent a shovelful of crusty soil flying. Her eyes followed the grains of dirt and little stones as they broke apart in the air, then fell across the face of one of the tombstones. The wooden monument stared at her reproachfully. It was completely blank; no name and no epitaph were written on it. After all, what would she write? "Here lies a Nameless Someone, perished because they followed a reckless knight-sister to impossible war." A couple of flies were buzzing lazily nearby, perhaps expecting to see and feast on at least a single corpse. But there would be none. The graves were for memories, not people. The blade of the shovel swished through the air and bit again into the soil. Another clump of dirt tumbled away. She straightened up and wiped the sweat from her face. She squinted up at the sky. The sun was blazing, straight above, sucking whatever moisture remained out of the dusty landscape, drying the blood on the rocks. The same rocks, she thought, where brothers and sisters, her brothers and sisters in arms and faith, had perished in terrible battle. In the near distance, the foreboding black silhouette of the Iron Wall rose like a jagged curtain, a single crack in the eastern wall the only testament to the Empyrean siege that was supposed to reclaim Iron City in the name of the Light. When the final grave was dug and covered up, she stuck the shovel into the earth, took hold of her scabbard and unsheathed her sword. She was dying of thirst and hunger, and her feet were keeping her carriage upright only by means of some freak miracle. None of that mattered.
A lone woman in a tattered robe walked up to the Iron Wall and stood there unflinching and bold. She spoke a single word, but this she bellowed from the pits of her lungs until the great length of the Iron Wall shook from the sound of it.
A drunkard roared. "Ain't that a she-devil I'd like ta stab with me man-fork," another one roared. At the Ogre Belly the weekend trade was in full swing. Roars, laughter and general drunken carousing echoed off the walls as the man in the dusty black coat fought his way through the tight ranks of patrons and took a seat at the bar. He poured a glass of beer without monetary preamble and leaned in as the barkeep whispered to him. "Freykin' inbreds. Ain't they know them she-devils are like subbubi. They're soul-suckin' bitches, eh?" The man in the coat gave a vague nod and took a sip of his beer. The bartender didn't once remind him that he had to pay for the beverage. Only men to remind a Frey of anything in Lowtown without the risk of permanently dislocating their balls would be Old Jack or Riggs, and the bartender was neither. Somewhere someone smashed a glass against a wall. Somewhere else someone smashed a skull against a table. Anywhere else such acts of prolific barbarism would provoke an uproar or at least some kind of reaction, but this sort of shit went down routinely at the Ogre and no-one batted an eye. The establishment was famed for it; it was the kind of dive that made you want to scrub your skin with lye as soon as you walked out. It made the atmosphere at the Mug look like high tea at the royal court. The Tankard was a-whole-nother realm of existence.
The man in the black coat took another sip of his beer, then rolled and lit a tab. He looked around, sharp eyes peering through a miasma of cigarette smoke. Greasy torches shed greasy light on a greasy, unpalatable interiour, a crumbling wooden infrastructure set over a handful of rooms that passed for bar, pit fight establishment and preferred hang-out for low-rent whores all at once. These last doubled as servers, the dim illumination sufficient to display a lengthy commitment to their vocation. One made a suggestive move toward the man in the black coat, but he halted her advances with a dagger-hard stare before she managed three steps. "Wha'? You some kinda dolt with some kinda aversion toward 'ard-workin' women-folk?" The drunk, off-island sailor intended it as good humour, but had he spent more than a coherent day in Lowtown he would have known a remark like that would earn him a slashed throat and an unmarked hole-for-grave by the docks before he could finish chugging whatever spill he was nursing. But tonight was different. The man in the black coat barely acknowledged the jest, his eyes elsewhere and his mind doubly so.
The man in the black coat sat still and quiet for a long while, so long the bar had gone quiet, the patrons gone home to beat their wives, shag then beat other men's wives or sleep off their buzz. The man in the coat took a chair at a side table and sat in the dark for a few minutes, the barkeep having the good sense to not interrupt his reveries. The fire was dying to its embers, and the room was growing cold. On the ground next to the furnace lay a pool of blood and two severed fingers. There was no trace of the owner. The man stood up, walked across the room - absent-mindedly stepping on the two fingers as he did - then walked out the front door and leaned against a wall, rolling the nineteenth tab that day. Morning was still a few minutes off, and in the twilight the city was the colour of smoke. That kind of haze always prompted deep pondering in the man, and this time was no different.
So princess wants to go to a ball, but she ain't got the name, face or companion for it. And who but a Frey's got a remedy for that. Well, lucky for her everythin's for takin' in this world if a man's got a mind and will for it. Even names and faces. Reckon we're gonna wanna find some recluse aristocrat and his mistress, drug or behead both, then play their parts for the night. Reckon this is the sorta jive that gets her panties furrowed. Any drow's.
The man in the dusty black coat spat, the sound of that echoing loudly through the abandoned streets. He didn't so much spit because he had ashes on his tongue as he did because come the ball, he would need to impersonate that which he loathed the most in this world. Blue-bloods. But what a man doesn't do for vengeance and scorned princesses...
Introducing Renneleth Margaladhon. Get his portrait here, his tune here and his story here
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"They say that all elves are beautiful, that they are graceful and considerate in all things, that they were born thus. When the Seldarine made Renneleth, they must have wished to mock their own creation. At an early age they disfigured him, wilting half of his face so that he would never enjoy the preternatural beauty of his people. They instilled in his spirit a wild and dangerous fury so that he would never know serenity. And in his heart they lodged hatred and grief so that for all times, until the end times, he would walk the lands with an unquenchable thirst for vengeance. They call him pain-eater, a man who gorges himself on others' grief and sorrow. This is true, for Renneleth has long ago acknowledged that his place among his people will always be at the fringes. Never quite welcome among kin, he understands that he will never serve his people with love and laughter, but he can take their toils and their pains upon himself so that they may not know darkness. This makes a man dangerous. If he relinquishes love, he has nothing to lose. And if he has nothing to lose, there are no lengths he will not cross to see an end to a goal..."
For an age I lived in Feywood and for Feywood. With each rise of the sun I breathed its scents and heard its early dawning sounds. I knew it like one knows their own heart; I knew every twisted path and every sighing brooklet. I knew every tree by name and every beast by smell. The forest was as much part of me as the skin that drapes my flesh. I gave my life for Feywood, but in return I was cast out. When the red-robed filths and their dragon-blooded bitch came to our doorstep, when I bled to drive them out, I was exiled. It was my ire that had brought them to Feywood, the elders said. To please a warmongering Krel Twistback whose lieutenant I had struck down defending my own home and the home of my kin, I was bereft of everything I knew. But I fault no kin and hold no grudge against my people. In truth, I volunteered to be cast out because it meant my people would be safe. Even when the Tel'Mordere demanded half of our forest for settlement and would not relent unless someone challenged their huntmaster and took their place, I did not hesitate to suffer their dark rituals. Such is my way. I have always and will always serve the Seldarine by taking the pains of their children upon myself. I will bleed so other elves may heal. I will wilt so our homes may grow. There is no dark pact, no insult, no pain I will not suffer in the name of my people. If you must know something about me, know this. The Seldarine made the perfect creation to rule the realms with wisdom and caution. This is not a myth or a fable, it is the destiny of my people! The elves will rise again to olden-time glories even if we have to carve that path in blood. And when that time comes, and it is nigh, the broken-faced Tel'Mordere Huntmaster will walk first among them.
There is a forest to the west of Feywood and north of Hamley. In many ways it is more swamp than forest; there is no clean water to drink, nothing but brackish, cloudy pools that even the animals avoid. Save the spiders, of course. For the swamp-forest is their realm. Inhospitable and unforgiving, the Adumbral Forest is a lair of mossy rocks, green reeds, and stunted skeletal oaks sagging on the occasional lumps of higher ground standing amidst a swamp that floods every year and stretches in every direction. Here there are no signs of human or elven life. The air is cloudy with gnats and mosquitos and the smell of rotting earth. Every bit of ground is saturated with muck and mud and treacherous pools and slopes. There is no road through the Adumbral Forest - it is too dangerous and changes too often for they Hamlites to bother with the effort. The land is savage and raw, and, to some, eerily beautiful, like a taupe moth with flecks of colour on its wings. Several murky rivers slit through the middle of the Adumbral Forest, and if one follows one such river one would emerge at a little clearing nested among sharp, crumbling cliffs. Here ghostly noises wander by like echoes. Below, if one had the eyes of a hawk, there are small shapes. A drow. Two dragon-kin. Two elves. A red-robed man. They whisper and they scheme. And above them, unmoving and unseen, a broken-faced elf watches. And he remembers. He draws his black blade and slips from the shadows...
Exhausted, he kneeled on the ground, but it was a fitful meditation. He knew he was uncomfortable, his back and legs aching, yet his mind was somewhere else - back in Feywoods when he was still a child, watching his mother go about preparing the evening meal while his father was busied waxing his bow. Memories flitted by, a jumble of past conversations, both spoken and unspoken ones. Then he was back, gazing down at himself, his ruined face pale, spattered and gritty. A whisper sounded in the dark, and he heard the crunch of leaves and twigs. A cackling witch, robed in black, was advancing toward him. He knew it was Kallista for her eyes glowed red, illuminating small circles that only just touched her cheeks. A stray beam of moonlight revealed her right hand, and blackness emanated from it, stealing through the night and engulfing the ground like a shroud.
He felt like a leaf, hovering on the wind. He yelled, but no sound came out. He had to warn himself, to wake himself. The more he tugged at the immaterial bonds, the more the night breezes puffed him this way and that. Wake up, Renneleth. Wake up! he roared in his mind as Kallista advanced straight toward him. He clawed at the invisible threads separating him from his meditative body. Still Kallista approached, the magic from her hand wreathing in the air like smoke. Only the smoke had shapes - of spiders, a dragonkin, a gnoll - like beasts stalking in the dark, each with gleaming eyes of red.
He was helpless, unable to reach his body. If only the dream ended, it would tug him back inside. He willed himself to awaken. He struggled against the chains of meditative sleep. Wake up! Wake up, damn you! The smoke shapes circled around his kneeling body, eyes greedy. They sniffed at him and leered at him, fingers and muzzles and claws rooting against his clothes, the touch lighter than a gasp of breath, yet colder than winter. A sick feeling bloomed inside of him as he watched the shapes, disgusted, polluted, cursed. He tried to pull himself awake in vain. Then Kallista knelt by him. Her black hand reached out and touched his mangled left-side face, running her fingers across melted skin and wilted muscle. He could almost feel it, her fingers coiling into his hair. He shuddered, revolted, and cringed from the gentle gesture that was not meant with any degree of gentleness. Her fingers stiffened around a thick clump of hair. She cackled. Moonlight off the edge of her icy sword blinded him as the tip suddenly plunged into his heart.
My steps are light as a fey's, have to force myself not to hotfoot. S'weird to get used to ain't being dead - Lenio tearin' up the neighbourhood, then the squidders comin' over for a snack, whole thing had been a hundred to one, and I ain't have any idea of how I survived it. And that was just last year's debacles. Ain't even gonna ask myself how I made it through Vera's prison break or the thrice-cursed Great War. But it was done, and by Draxus' glowin' balls, here I still am, alive. My heart's pumpin', my lungs are drawin' breath and I ain't put in the mud yet. I'm exuberant and giddy, ain't no two ways about it.
I box myself into composure. Ain't no good things come from celebratin' too early. I need to find my way outta the Kreis, outta Thain, with somethin' approachin' rapidity. Ain't nothin' left for me here. The warehouse is ashes, my crew and brothers are ashes, Lowtown's ashes. If I stick around much longer, I ain't gonna be stickin' around much longer after that. The wanted posters all over town attest to that. I know more than's healthy - about the Watch, about the Kreis, about Bargus, about a whole lotta things that are archived in a guild that ain't supposed to exist - but even if I didn't, s'a bad time to be on Thain if you're a Frey. Folk who've had less reason to be made into corpses than me lie dead under my feet, and I ain't one to push my luck. I know when I've lost; when I gotta consolidate my losses and move on. Now's that time. Part of me mourns for Lowtown and the fact she's gotta suffer a foreign cur like Lenio, but then again, what's Lowtown ever done for me save toss me to the gutter.
I cut a path down the winding back streets and alleys that run parallel with the docks till I'm confident a pack of bloodhounds ain't can follow along. Then I make for the Ogre with everything I'm worth, all neatly crammed into a magical bag. I need to go to ground, find a hole to collapse into for a few hours, and the Ogre's just that kinda place. Tomorrow mornin' I'm gonna reach out to my contacts at the docks. I know enough people to call in a favour with whatever ships are at birth. Most of my coin's been made into bonds at Trusty's, but I have a few Kämpfers stashed away. Freyk, I'd even work for passage if I have to even though I ain't know the first thing about seamanship. But there'd be time to learn, eh? There'd be time for lotsa things.
I can smell the city's descent, anarchy in the air, violence like chimney smoke. Some say it's Lenio's fault, other say it's my own. I'm more prone to point blame at the bluebloods up in High Town, but ultimately even that's wrong. Violence, s'a human thing. We ain't a gentle race. Sometimes I'm amazed how the rest of the Kreis ain't yet sunk into the same pit of shit like Lowtown, but I reckon s'only a matter of time. Not that any of that matter to me anymore. I ain't care anymore who runs the Kreis or how, not one damned bit. If luck keeps with me a little while longer, I ain't even gonna be around to see it.
From the docks to the northern corner of Lowtown where the Ogre's at is a twenty-minute walk. I did in fifty. Took my time. Gotta make sure I ain't followed, but real reason is I'm savourin' the sights of the neighbourhood - the shit-smeared alleys, the reekin' gutters, the bruised rooftops - not certain when or if I'm ever gonna be back. My breath's heavy and every part of me aches from recent ordeals, but the thought of refuge keeps me goin', a warm bed to lie down in, a few hours of peace.
I thought leavin' was gonna be hard, but it really ain't. When there ain't nothin' left at all for you in a place, there ain't nothin' left. Just let go of all ties and all memories, and, come the next morn', let the sea take you away.
If only he was not on duty that day, if only his presence was not required at the crumbled ruin of Fort Crater, he would not have lost his footing and received a blade in his gut. The exact same could be said of her...
* * *
"It will be my honour, Empyrean wench." Talorhend did not look especially honoured as he stepped forth and accepted the challenge, moving as easily in full plate as a maiden in her shift. If anything, he felt mildly giddy. Few things in life brought him more pleasure than gutting Empyreans, and this wench was a Celestial Knight on top. That he used to be one of them only intensified his bloodlust. He took up his shield and flaming sword and made the air whistle with some fearsome swipes. Hardly a challenge, he sighed. The woman opposite was at least two heads shorter, thin around her chest and shoulder, and, from what he could gauge through the slits in her helmet, much older than him. No doubt she was gifted at dancing and boasted a fine singing voice, but why she insisted to carry a sword and shield, much less challenge a Hell Knight, he could not even begin to guess at. They stood on a ragged beach - which, in truth, was a flooded graveyard where countless men and women had perished during the Great War - seizing each other up. The sun was sinking and the water was ebbing, and he contented himself with the knowledge that he would at least not fight up to his knees in brine. Talorhend crouched, twisting his plated boots into the sand, then bared his teeth in a vicious leer. He gave a fighting growl, deep and guttural, louder and louder until the beach seemed to shake with it. Let the little wench piss her pants before she croaks. He saw her eyes widen, but to his astonishment, there was no fear in them. To give her her de, she leapt in bravely enough, but Talorhend caught the blow on his sword, wickedly keen blades scraping, then darted in quick as a viper despite his size and armour and kicked the woman's feet away. The Empyrean whooped as she fell, but only until Talorhend's spiked shield rim caught her above the eye with a dull thud and knocked her half senseless. The towering Hell Knight smirked, stepped forward and planted his boot on the woman's sword, grinding it under his heel. The beaten Empyrean groaned, one half of her countenance plastered with sand, the other blood-soaked from the gash on her forehead. Just like I expected, the battle's over before it started, Talorhend thought. He kicked her across the face, then stomped on her head, drowning her in the waters of Blood Lake.
Cassia came to herself as the Hell Knight's boot pressed against her neck. Smothered by rushing bubbles, she writhed and thrashed and twisted with the simple need to stay alive. The Gods must yet have had some use for her, for when it seemed her ribs would burst and she must breathe in whether it was sea or sky, her head broke from the water. Spray blinded her, and she coughed and kicked, was sucked under, tossed and tumbled by the current. A roiling wave flung her onto a rock, and she clutched at shredding barnacle and sickly weed just long enough to right herself up before the Hell Knight re-engaged. The moment you pause will be the moment you die, Knight-Templar Marcianus always liked to remind her, and she'd lived her life, surviving countless battles, by that advice. So she bared her teeth and pushed up from her knees, lunging at her opponent with a fury that was seldom seen in a woman who barely stood five feet two. She barged at him with her shoulder, their shields crashing and grating, sand scattering from his heels as he staggered back up the beach. He chopped fiercely at her but she ducked his flaming brand, swept hers low and caught him full in the calf, just below his tabard's flapping hem. To give the Hell Knight his due he didn't go down, didn't even cry out, just hopped back, grimacing. Cassia shook her shoulders, waiting to see if her cut was enough to collapse her opponent, but he stood erect. The Hell Knight was strong as a bull, it was plain to see, and had plenty of fight left in him, but he was limping and tired, and Cassia had made sure the slope of the beach was on her side. After all, that's the second thing Knight-Templar Marcianus liked to remind his students of: "Wit beats brawn seven out of ten." She liked those odds. She kept her eyes fixed on him, dodged one blow, then another, then slipped around a powerful overhead cleave to leave his side open. Her sword thudded into the man's devil-shaped cuirass with a dull ping and left him tottering helpless. All that was left was the final blow. A merciful blow. A kindness she was certain he would not offer were their roles reversed.
* * *
The wound didn't hurt like he thought it would. A dull ache, a growing sensation of cold. It started to rain. He watched as little droplets of water beat down into the sand and listened to his own ragged breathing. The light started to fade. He dropped to one knee, then the other, then crashed face-first into the sand. He clenched and unclenched his gauntlet, for no better reason than to see if he still could. Then he couldn't anymore, and he knew he didn't have long left. Funny, he thought. Some years ago he would have died proudly wielding an Empyrean blade, and now he was killed by one. Was that what they called poetic justice? Things are coming at him quickly, fragments of his past, stray images an bits of memory. His brothers and sister laughing as they ride on their father's cart. Himself as a youth, beaming with pride as Old Bennars appoints him squire. Himself again, bowing a knee to the now-dead Empress of Iron City. And then the visions are gone, and there's nothing left but the rain and the sand. Before he shuts his eyes, he smiles. The woman lies next to him, his sword buried in her left ribcage. She was a worthy opponent after all, perhaps even an overpowering one, but she was only flesh and blood. He wonders if she saw it coming, his feigned parry, then the clean riposte. He wonders if she is at peace like he is or whether she is struggling for a final ounce of breath. Then he doesn't wonder about anything at all.
There is only the rain and the waves, and a man and a woman lying still on the sand.