Who are the Bloodguard, you ask? Folk like you and yours, I reply. The decent kind, haters of evil, doers of good. The kind who live according to the gods' laws. Those disgusted by the machinations of villains and monsters. All that separates us from common folk is that we've the courage to take up arms, to defend our island. To say: "Ne plus ultra! Enough is enough!" Thain screams with wails of the innocent; atrocities that beg the gods for redress. But gods will not avail us, only our deeds and conscience will. Do not go into the Afterlife as a coward. Find courage and rise to defend your home and kin to your last drop of blood. And know that in doing so, you are not alone!
I: Adumbral Forest
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Cassia Aurelia's Journal wrote ...
When scholars speak of corruption, they speak of dark seeds that fester in the hearts of men; evils that take root in the fabric of conscience and transform man's greatest virtue, altruism, into pompous self-adulation and petty self-serving. But corruption has a more severe expression, too. It can be so profound and so pervasive that it taints the very land. Forests become stunted and grade into blighted shrub, rivers and lakes dry out, and the skies are swallowed by darkness. No other people know this phenomenon better than the sturdy islanders from Thain. Since the First Cataclysm, when the First Evil poured into the realm of men, the people of Thain have had to contend with corruption like others contend with bad weather: invariably. Indeed, there are places on Thain like Poisonwood, Dragon's Watch and Iron City where corruption is freely practised - even encouraged - and where it grows strong in the hearts of those that dwell there.
Corruption is akin to a weed. If left unchecked, it will blight even the most pristine of gardens. Like a weed or diseased plant spore, you cannot contain or rein in corruption. You are faced with a choice, then: do you turn a blind eye to its growth and hope that it does not spread to your house and garden, or are you perspicacious enough to know that the only true means of prevention is complete sanitisation? I like to imagine that this is what the Bloodguard of old believed. I know that this is what I believe. In the fight against corruption and evil, there can be no half measures and no compromise. There must not be! I will not rest while monsters blight the land I call home; I will not rest until their last stronghold has crumbled into dust.
It will begin in the Adumbral Forest, where the dark witch, Kallista, has made her lair. There she summons fiends and shadows to blight the land. Feywood has nearly perished to Kallista and her associates, and so, too, might Hamley. I say ne plus ultra! Enough is enough! Perhaps I will fight her alone and perish - again - or perhaps others will share in my convictions and help put the witch to the stake The outcome is irrelevant. All that matters is that we try.
Bastian blinked down at his son. Seventeen years next moon, and Rolf had scarcely seen peace in his lifetime. Moments of it, maybe, between the Shadow War, the Kinswar and the Great War. Glimpses through a haze of blood. Fucking Thain. As he struggled to answer, Bastian reckoned he hardly remembered what peace felt like himself any more. How long had he been living in fear? He squatted sat down beside Rolf and thought of his own father squatting before him a lifetime ago. Some men will break a thing just 'cause they can, his father had said. Bloodshed must be a man's last resort. Draw a sword, and you've lost already. In spite of all his victories, all the odds beaten and the enemies put in the mud, all the ransoms claimed and feuds settled, Bastian had been losing for years. He saw that now.
"Peace," he began, "reckon that's when the feuds are all settled, and all the debts are paid, and everyone is content with how things are. More or less content. Peace is when… when no-one's fightin' anyone else. When there's no more monsters left to fight. Leastways none with scales, horns or wings."
Rolf thought about that, frowning. Bastian loved him, of course he did, but even he had to admit the boy wasn't the quickest. "Then … who wins?"
"Everyone. Thain does," said Bastian.
Rolf raised his brows. "So is that why we're joinin' up with them Blood Folk? To settle feuds and make peace?"
Bastian grunted a chuckle. Certainly the previous, he thought, but folk like Red Cassia were not made for peace. That one was born to fight for all time, until the Endtime. "We're joinin' them because there's gotta be rules and order to the world, and because there's gotta be men willin' to do what it takes to make it happen. Rules and order, ain't no peace without either, and neither can be had with monsters as neighbours."
Rolf scratched some nascent stubble on a pock-marked chin, pondering. Daft boy, aye, but barely seventeen summers old and Rolf was better with a sword than any Hamlite twice his age and experience. "Rules an' order? Why we need that?"
"Because, son, rules and order are what separate man from beast. Without rules, every man stands alone, owning only what he can tear from the world with one hand and grip with the other. You understand that?"
Rolf nodded. "What’ll we do with peace?"
Bastian smiled as he thought about that. He didn't need to think long. "I don't know, son. Thain hasn't known peace in my lifetime. Maybe it will in yours. Now ain't that a goal worth bleedin' for?"
Registered Member #20
Joined: 8:30:40 am GMT 02/25/04
Battle of the Bridge
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It was the bridge that separated it all. A simple bridge of weathered wood, covered in layers of webbing.
On one side of the bridge was the encampment of the blood guard. Makeshift fortifications of stone protecting a small forward camp. Through the trees, the high walls of Hamley and the tower of Fort Bennars were visible in the distance.
On the other side of the bridge, there was pure darkness. An gathering cloud of inky blackness that reached across the edges with unnatural hunger. Hundreds of crimson eyes peered out of the gloom, belonging to a swarm of spiders. The arachnid creatures had advanced to the bridge’s edge, ready to defend their hunting grounds.
And at the bridge’s center, two figures were locked in fierce battle. One was a drow sorceress. Adorned in ornate armor and a cloak of blackened feathers, wielding a blade that shone with glittering frost. The other combatant was a shade. Smaller than the sorceress. Not even fully corporeal. Yet she battled with otherworldly fierceness, wielding her twin blades with a dancer’s grace.
The shade of the Fehrien girl was faster than the last time Kallista had met her on the field. Far, far more dangerous than she had ever been in life. No matter how many times Kallista banished the accursed creature, she always returned to hunt the sorceress down again. The creature was no mere nightmare. Kallista had woven enough nightmares to know that for certain. But the damnable persistent shade might well have been one.
The black sorceress barred her teeth as she deflected another of the shade’s strike. A gesture and a murmured word summoned a pair of shadows to either side. They were dark figures that resembled silhouettes of Kallista herself, descending on the Fehrien creature with their own icy blades. They were vicious, and dangerous creatures, summoned from the shadows. And more importantly, they would buy Kallista time for another spell.
Somehow, the shade managed to out-maneuver both of the images, gliding between them with a shadow step. It was a dangerous move, one that brought her into arm’s reach of the true sorceress, driving Kallista another step back.
The Fehrien shade lashed out with both blades, vengeance in her eyes.
Kallista’s icy weapon answered a second too slow. The shadowed katana pierced her armor and drove into her stomach.
Through the wrenching pain, she nearly stumbled backwards into Halla. The great white, still missing one arm, had appeared from the darkness in the perfect moment. Moving between the wounded sorceress and the vengeful shade as Kallista retreated back across the bridge.
Now, he rushed at the shade. The Fehrien shadow not backing down even against a white dragon thrice her size. Across the bridge, through the haze of pain, Kallista could see Cassia approaching quickly. The red knight was running, probably intending to leap into the fray, as she usually did.
Enough was enough.
For a sorceress, pain was a tool. One more emotion to drive her blood magic. She gathered what remained of her strength, her fingers gathering the web-like strands of the weave that only she could see. She closed her dark hands into fists. Lifted them, and brought them down.
Raw, shadowed magic slammed into the bridge. The supports giving way, just as the shade managed to send the much larger white reeling with a powerful blow. The bridge began to give way, and both of the remaining combatants began to fall.
Halla reached out with his one remaining hand, catching a root at the edge. His great white wings spreading to either side as his very presence frosted the edges of the chasm. Meanwhile, the Fehrien shade leapt - her shadowed hand catching Cassia’s own as the red knight pulled her up the other side. Narrowly avoiding a fall into the blackness below. The bridge fell, leaving only a chasm. Halla pulled himself up to safety, with some effort.
For a moment, the two groups stared at one another. Kallista and Halla on one side, the shade and Cassia on the other. A moment too long.
Cassia threw her shield at her enemy. It missed, just barely, smashing into a tree at Kallista’s side as she managed to duck. Divine flames emanated from the shield, marking the adumbral with their holy light.
The sorceress turned, and disappeared into the gathering darkness. Droplets of her own blood trailing at her heels as Halla moved to walk alongside.
In a pitch-black cavern beneath the adumbral, the black sorceress was settled along beside a reflecting pool. Halla was gone. Her armor was set aside. Little white spiders were crawling over her bare flesh, binding silk over the wound in her abdomen. The wound left behind by the shade of Fehrien, still painful.
The next war, it seemed, would be coming to her woods. The red knight was already on the move. Soon, her enemies would gather.
But she knew just the weapon that would tip the balance into her favor.
Bastian smelled them before he saw them, but that was always the way with him. He had a good nose, but being honest though, anyone could have smelled them. They reeked. The whole Adumbral Forest reeked of them. There were twelve down in the clearing. Chittering, spinning web and eating, clicking to each other in their nasty tongue, big yellow mandibles sticking out everywhere. Ettercaps.
"Gods-damned ettercaps," Bastian muttered to himself. He heard a soft hiss behind, turned round to see Rolf peering up from behind a bush. He held out his open hand to say stop, pointed at his eyes to suggest ettercaps, held up his fist, then two fingers to say twelve, and pointed back down the track towards the others. Rolf and Gunther nodded and faded away into the woods. Bastian took one last look at the ettercaps, just to make sure they were all still unwary. They were, so he slipped back down the tree and off.
"They're camped round the road, twelve that I saw, maybe more. Definitely more" he told the Red Woman. She was standing with two others, a tall elf accoutred in the same sort of blood-soaked armour as the Red Woman, and a weird fellow dressed in dark leathers. The elf spat onto the ground, unsheathing his sword. Bastian had to consciously resist the urge to look away. There was something gut-wrenchingly terrifying about the Blood Folk, and standing so close to them made the fear all the more visceral.
"Twelve is nothing," the large elf was already on the move. Bastian looked at the elf, thinking it out, taking his moment. Twelve wasn't nothing, and everyone in the camp who wasn't a Blood Folk knew it, but it might be better to deal with them than leave them free and easy behind. Besides, arguing with the Blood Folk was an exercise in futility. He'd just get the standard reply that pain and bloodshed were any man's lot in life. You own up to it or you die a coward.
"Tion'tuur vaabir vi oya'karir, Ge'tal Dala?" asked the man in dark leathers. No-one understood a word of his foreign speech, and when it became apparent enough to the mercenary, he translated with an impatient grunt: "When do we set out?"
The Red Woman set her jaw. "Now. Weapons at the ready."
A fighting man's a fool who doesn't keep his weapons clean and ready. Bastian had been over his no more than an hour before. Still, you won't be killed for checking them, while you might be for not doing it. There was the hissing of steel on leather, the clicking of wood and the clanking of metal. Bastian watched Gunther twang at his bowstring, check over the feathers on his shafts. He watched the large elf run his thumb down the edge of his big heavy sword, almost as tall as the elf was, hissing like a viper at a spot of rust. He watched the mercenary apply a rag on the head of his curved steel, looking at the blade with eyes as soft as a lover's. He watched the Red Woman tugging at the buckles on her shield straps, swishing her blade through the air, bright metal glinting. Bastian gave a sigh, pulled the straps on his guard tighter around his left wrist, checked the wood of his bow for cracks. He made sure all his knives were where they should be. You can never have too many knives, his father had once told him, and he'd taken it straight to heart. He watched Rolf checking his short-sword with clumsy hands, his mouth chewing away, eyes all wet with fear. That got his own nerves jumping, and he glanced around at the others. Blood-soaked, scarred, frowns and lots of anger. There was no fear there, no fear at all, but that was nothing to be shamed at. Different men have different ways, his father had told him, and that was something Bastian had taken straight to heart as well. He walked over to Rolf and gave his son a clap on the shoulder.
"It's alright. You have to have fear to have courage."
"So they say, and it's a good thing too." Bastian leaned close so none of the Blood Folk could hear him. "...cause I'm about ready to shit myself back to Hamley." Rolf gave half a smile, but it slumped pretty fast, and he looked more scared than ever. Seventeen summers, a man's age always shows true when things are about to get ugly. Still, Bastian was proud as no father had ever been proud of their son. Most of Rolf's peers had never set foot in the Adumbral Forest, let alone fought in a campaign.
"Taci et audi me. Gather around," said the Red Woman, once the gear was all checked and stowed in its proper places. "Here is how we will get it done. Rhaaxus," she looked across at the man in dark leathers, "you are the scout among us. We will follow your lead."
Seven men set out from the camp that night. Five returned. Bastian thanked Andarus for the tenth time both he and Rolf had been among the survivors. The Red Woman had said their stay in the Adumbral Forest could last all winter. Bastian reckoned he was lucky if he made it to next week.
[Special thanks to DM Alan for running the event.]
Rolf plunged through trees, rock and water as if a thousand whips spurned him on, one bare foot slipping and sliding on wet earth, the slush, and the wet downtrodden leaves, breath stuck mid-throat and rasping in his chest. Gasp gasp, blood thumping in his head like an angry hammer beating on an anvil. And then the spits of acid, balls of corrosive bile, coming at him with deadly precision.
"Scheiße! Verdammt! By Ftarek's flaming sack, might as well take it like a man!". The young scout threw himself to one side, slipped and fell on his face – adding a few more scars and dents to what was already becoming a canvas of carved flesh – rolling away thrashing through the brush, expecting the acid burning through his vest at any moment. And then that horrible, stretched out second between stubbing your knee and feeling the hurt. How long before the pain settles in? How bad will it hurt when it comes? Will I be able to limp away? He winced, grimaced, slack-jawed and tingling with anticipation. The pain was unspeakable, a sizzling spasm up his back from arse to neck. He squeezed his watering eyes shut, shutting out the anguish as it were, clamping his hand over his mouth so hard that the knuckles clicked. Teeth grated against each other as he locked his jaws together, but a high-pitched, squeaky moan still whistled from him, giving away his presence. The spiders heard. Of course they heard!
Get up, Rolf! Get up!" He scrambled up, breathing hard. Another spit of acid soared toward him. He dodged out of the way, slithering behind a big tree trunk. He peered out and the spider hissed, or clicked its mandibles, or whatever-the-hell it is those bastards do, and stabbed at him with its front legs, tips sharp as blades. Rolf showed himself on the other side, a split second, then ducked away, jumped round the trunk and swung his sword down, roaring as he did. There was a loud crack as the blade buried itself deep into something. He didn't have the time to see what. The spider had ducked and the sword cut deep into a tree behind it. The blade wedged itself deep into the bark, dragging the sword from Rolf's fingers. He tried to pull it free but the spider was coming at him, leaping through the air with astonishing dexterity. No time to get the sword. No time to get out of the way. No time for anythng. Rolf's mouth opened, but the sound was knocked out of him with a charge to his gut. They crashed to the wet ground together, rolled together through dirt and thorns and broken branches, tearing and growling at each other. They rolled on, and on and on, downhill, bodies and heads hitting against tree roots and stone, the world flipping around until up was down and down was up. They were fast approaching the edge of a cliff, an unfathomable void awaiting beyond it.
"Scheiße! Verdammt! Shit! Dmnaed it!" What else was there to say?
One thing can be said about the Adumbral Forest, there are gorges so deep you can't hear a clatter if you throw a rock down one. The scout and the spider tumbled downhill toward the edge. There was no stopping. As Rolf slid over the edge of the cliff on his side, clutching the spider like an old lover, he thought about a warm bath. Of all the things a man could, should, think about in his final moment, his had to be about a damned bath. Why the hells not? His hands scrabbled at the wet earth. Only dirt and soaked leaves.
"Andarus. Ftarek. Entheat. Any-fucking-one! I need a branch, a root, something!". His fingers clutched, clutched at nothing. He began to fall. At least the bastard spider is falling with me, thought Rolf and roared out a laughter. Might as well die grinning. He'd heard somewhere it's best to go out that way. Why not? Then his hand closed around something. A gauntlet. Slippery. Bloodsoaked. It took all his effort to hold on. The face of the Red Woman stared down at him.
"Now is not the time to die. Maybe in an hour or two, when the witch and her brood storm the camp."
How comforting. But Rolf liked those odds better than falling into a hole with a spider.
"Shit," he whispered, and just then the large elf came hurtling out from the trees, flaming sword in hand. "No retreat! For Thain!" the elf screamed, giving the nearest spider a fearsome big blow in the head and splattering blood across the ruined wall. In so far as you could tell what a spider was thinking, these ones looked mighty surprised. There were hundreds of them, and less than two dozen defenders. In any rational world, the former would overrun the latter. But here, now, the defenders stood their ground, forming an impenetrable circle of swords, shields and spears. The Red Woman, her faced smeared in blood and her eyes burning with molten fervour, yelled something. It must have been encouraging because those that stood near her stood a bit taller at her words. Rolf let loose his shaft at the nearest spider and watched it catch it through the belly with a satisfying thunk. "Hah!" he shouted, scarcely believing his luck. He saw the tall elf spit another through the back with his sword. Another elf, her form blurred like a spectre's, came roaring from the wall rubble on the other side of the camp, catching the spiders off guard. She barged one spider in the back with her shoulder, then hacked at another with her twin swords. Rolf blinked. He couldn't make half sense of what was going on around him.
It didn't ease his vexation when a black beast with wings the size of a ship's sails descended from the skies. It roared like thunder, spitting black fire at the five fools that had rushed to meet it head-on. Someone was mounted on the back of the beast. Obsidian skin and alabaster hair. The witch! Any other time Rolf would have stared mesmerised, utterly transfixed, at Kallista, but survival trumped awe. He let go a shaft and it stuck a spider in its gut. The creature dropped down on its hind legs and a moment later the she-spectre took its head off with a clean swing of her sword. The fight was joined and moving quick – chop, grunt, scrape, rattle. There was blood flying and weapons swinging and bodies dropping too fast for Rolf to try an arrow at. When he had read the Red Woman's poster about standing tall and defiant in the face of evil, he had felt damned proud to answer it. Now, battling drow, dragons, spiders and a some crazed, winged demon that showed on the eastern flank and tore through their defences like a child swinging at wooden toys, Rolf was wondering whether it would not have been more prudent to stay at home. Better to bleed than die a coward, the Red Woman had said. Rolf was beginning to question the wisdom in that.
The remaining defenders were hemmed in, the encroaching spiders hissing all around them. The tall elf was swinging his big sword around, keeping them at bay, but he was sustaining many nasty wounds, and many nasty wounds were what killed a man. The Red Woman darted in and chopped the legs out from under a spider, and the she-spectre cut another down as it looked around, but for every two spiders chopped a dozen more appeared. Bad-fucking-habit, that, thought Rolf. It seemed to him that defending the camp was a bit like writing your obituary; every swing of your sword was the pen spelling out your demise. It didn't matter if he killed a spider, they kept coming in overwhelming waves. Something tickled his neck, and he shrugged. He recalled the speech the Red Woman had given moments before the battle. "You stand here and you waver. You think that the odds are against us, that the witch has already won because the size of our enemy far outnumbers those here present. If this is the fear that gnaws at your bones, then you have nothing to fear at all, for we cannot lose! We have already won! This battle was never about killing the witch; this battle is about lighting a beacon, and ours burns bright! When men look our way, they will know that here stood a dozen few and defied hundreds! They will know that even in the face of overwhelming evil, courage prevails! Thain prevails!" Something tickled his neck again, and Rolf fell to his knees. Gods-damned mosquitoes. He swung his free arm to slap at his neck, but found his limb heavy and unresponsive. When finally he brought his hand to his neck, something warm and wet spread across his palm. He withdrew his hand and looked at his fingers. Red. Blood, his own. A duo of spiders were fast approaching his position, but Rolf found he couldn't move. He wanted to, gods know he wanted to, but his legs were heavy, as if fettered with iron chains. Everything occurred in haphazard flashes, then. A black beast. A grinning witch. Someone's fiery eyes. The face of a concerned father. He felt his bow escaping his fingers. Somewhere someone shouted, but Rolf couldn't hear the words. The world was suddenly bereft of all sound save the distant beating of his slowing heart. He smiled. He wanted to tell his father not to worry. He wanted to tell the Red Woman how proud he felt to have stood beside her and the Blood Folk. But most of all, Rolf wanted the beacon he had helped lit to keep burning. What a damned shame that after all the sacrifices, the witch would extinguish their fire.
Had Rolf lived but a moment longer, he would have witnessed that the fire he had helped lit had, indeed, burned bright and long. Many heroes had come in the battle's most desperate hour to turn the tide against Kallista. Styvn, Dele, Gram, Acanthus. Others, too. Against all odds, the heroes had not only stood firm and unshaken against Kallista's horde, but they had also turned defeat into victory.
When the smoke and the fires of the battle had died and the victors had long left the Adumbral Forest, only three people remained. A red woman, a tall elf and a she-ghost. They picked up the corpse of a seventeen-summers-old youth and laid him on a pyre. In life, Rolf was, to most, a nameless youth from the village of Hamley. In death, he was anointed Blood Guard.
Registered Member #20
Joined: 8:30:40 am GMT 02/25/04
Fire and Ruin
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It had not been enough.
The dragon, the beasts, all of her forces and her gathered power. It was an army to strike terror into the hearts of any mortal creature. But it was not enough.
What had driven Cassia so? This magical blood she boasted, Kallista had thought so little of it at first. One more surfacer trick, one more false god for them to believe in. Now she had seen it in battle. The fire of Thain’s blood burning in Cassia’s eyes had felt like it might reach out to burn Kallista alive. In all of her many battles with Cassia, the sorceress had rarely felt real fear. Usually, it was all a game. But Cassia had won. For the first time, the red knight had wanted it more.
She had returned from her desperate escape into the shadow plane in time to see the flames of her woods, rising high. Her cocoons were burning within, and impossible as it was, she could hear them all. Screaming. Thousands of her little children, all burning away. However many thousands of spiders had hatched within the woods, she knew every one. She could feel them die. Each and every one.
This is what comes of love. If you were cold, like your mother, you wouldn't be hurting like this. The thought echoed in her mind, and she silenced it. To the Abyss with that thought. She loved her children, even as she watched them burn. The fires reflecting in her eyes.
She remembered the faces of my enemies. Those who fought her on the field. Cassia, of course, the red knight. The vengeful shade. The feywood ranger who had not given up. The priestess who battled through her fear. All of them.
She knew now, what forces were arrayed against her. Even as the flames of her southern woodlands burned, she closed her eyes in silent promise.
They will suffer for this. They will hurt the way that I hurt now.
I swear by my life and my magic and all that I have ever held sacred.
Registered Member #1145
Joined: 8:28:45 pm GMT 08/30/07
"Styvn? How did the battle go? Did you kill the drow witch?"
"No, Tranerill, we did not."
The young Feywood elf looked down at the rangers feet, disappointment clearly replacing the anticipation that had been there a moment before.
"But we did accomplish something we have not done before. We hurt her deeply. More importantly, we struck fear into her heart. I saw it in her eyes before she vanished into the portal."
Tranerill looked up again, and there was some lessening of the disappointment on his face. He looked down once more as he spoke.
"I want her to die. I want her to die a slow and painful death. Not just for my father, but for all the others of our kin that she and her evil band murdered when they attacked our home."
Styvn reached out and laid a gentle hand on Tranerill's shoulder. A gesture meant to comfort him, and also to assure him that they were not finished with Kallista yet. The young elf looked up at Styvn with anticipation returning to his demeanor.
"I shot many arrows at her and that foul beast she rode, and at least two of them made good, solid hits into her. She was in great pain, I assure you. And one of her strongest allies, the white dragonkin, fell just before she fled. Although I was disappointed that she escaped, I took some satisfaction in seeing fear in her eyes, and watching Halla fall. We laid waste to so many of her spiders that I lost count early on. I know she considers them her children. She now bears that pain, as well. Her own family suffers, as ours does."
Tranerill's face grew slightly darker as he spoke again.
"Good! I hope she suffers so much it breaks her cold, black heart! I wish I was older so I could fight with you. So I could see her suffer. I wish I could kill her myself."
As he spoke the last sentence Tranerill's eyes began to mist and he looked down again. Styvn's hand moved from Tranerill's shoulder to his chin. As he lifted the young elf's face, Styvn's brow furrowed and he shook his head.
"No, Tranerill. Do not be in such a hurry to bring death and destruction upon others, no matter the reason. It changes you. Forever. I would rather you were spared the loss of that bit of innocence which you still possess."
Styvn's words seemed to have an effect on the young elf, and his countenance brightened somewhat. He asked Styvn another question, steering the conversation away from the idea of him killing the drow witch to avenge his father.
"My father once told me you were the best scout, and the best guerrilla fighter he ever knew. What does that mean? What's a guerrilla fighter?"
A slight smile replaced the stern look on the ranger's face and he considered how best to answer Tranerill's question.
"First off, it was a great compliment for your father to speak so highly of me. Especially considering he was the one who taught me much of what I know about that style of combat. I am honored."
Tranerill's face lit up at Styvn's words about his father, and he waited for the ranger to continue with his explanation.
"Guerrilla warfare is a style of combat used by those who have a smaller, weaker force than those who oppose them. The idea is to harass them, and hurt them, to the point of making them lose interest in continuing the war. You must be stealthy, quick, and mobile. You appear out of nowhere, you cause as much damage as you can, as quickly as you can, and then you disappear again before they can recover and mount a counter attack. And you just keep doing it for as long as you survive."
The young elf was intrigued by the concept.
"Are you going to keep doing that to the drow witch?"
His question was one Styvn expected, and had an answer for.
"Yes, Tranerill. I am going to keep doing that to her. I am going to haunt her like a ghost. I will go to the Adumbral Woods whenever I can, and I will slaughter her children without mercy. Anytime I catch her alone I will fire arrows into her until she bleeds like a river during the Spring thaw. I will cause her pain and agony in body and in soul. And then I will disappear and prepare for the next encounter. Just like your father taught me. I promise you, she will find no rest."
At the foot of the Grey Mountains, tucked amid steep valleys, sits a verdant plateau. For as long as I remember, and I admit I have not been on Thain for more than a decade, this valley has been home to wild beasts and but one individual, an Elven wizard who relished the solitude of the mountains. Or so it was until they came. I remember the day vividly. They came on black ships with black sails. Accoutred in black garments and mounted on black steeds, they marched up the Grey Mountains in a single column. Their black standard billowed in the wind. On it was depicted an iron gauntlet clenched into a fist.
Later I learned that these men and women called themselves Knights of Terror, but others on Thain referred to these dark crusaders by their more colloquial name: Banites. As am I not born in Faerûn nor academically versed in its history, my knowledge on the Banites is limited. I know that they serve a deity called Bane. I know that this deity is the patron of conquest and tyranny, strength and subjugation. Finally, I know that the Knights of Terror embody their patron's tenets in all they do; every word spoken is a tribute to their Lord, and every deed committed is committed in honour of Bane's teachings. Those teachings are simple. They can be adequately and precisely summed up in three words: might makes right.
I am uncertain why the inhabitants of Thain allowed the Banites to go about their dark deeds with very little interference. Perhaps people believed, or wanted to believe, that the Banites were content in their solitude at the foot of the Grey Mountains, and that one day they would sail away in the same manner they had arrived: suddenly and swiftly. Perhaps people also believed that a lone contingent of knights were a threat to no-one. I am certain people thought the same of the Thayans when first they arrived on Thain. It is not an inappropriate comparison. Just like the Thayans brought death and war to Thain, razing Davenshire to the ground, so too did the Knights of Terror wage war on Hamley. They came out of nowhere and attacked for no other reason than slaughter, it is said, but in truth, their march on Hamley was long anticipated by those who possessed enough perspicacity to look beyond their own concerns. There were signs and warnings, but these were largely ignored. The Knights of Terror did not conquer Hamley, but neither were they defeated. An uneasy truce was agreed upon, a treaty that Hamley paid in blood. Among the fallen was one of Hamley's greatest heroes, Colonel Bennars.
It has been exactly five years since the death of Colonel Bennars. In those years, the Empyrean Aurora has not once challenged the regiment of dark knights that slew their commander. To that I say: "Ne plus ultra!" Enough is enough! Too long have these worshippers of tyranny been allowed to seed their evil across the island. It is long overdue someone uproot it. We shall fight their tyranny with fire and blood, and with fire, we, the Blood Guard, shall burn away their stain from our home.
Bastian was a changed man. Grief had changed him, grief born by the death of his eldest son. But something else had caused a change in Bastian too. Something so powerful that the emotion eclipsed even the loss of a child. And then the dreams began.
Bastian would close his eyes, and visions of Hamley would swim into view. As he passed through its weathered gates, there was a flash of memory, and Bastian was once more a farmer on his cart, oblivious to the threat of witches and dark knights. At his side was Rolf, laughing and telling stories. Rolf would jump off the cart, and Bastian had to run to keep up with him. Rolf was pointing at something or someone in the distance, but Bastian couldn't quite make out what. He stopped running when his boot splashed into a puddle of water. No, not water. Blood. There were patterns in the blood, a reflection that distracted Bastian from keeping up with his son. When he did gaze up to look after his son, instead Bastian found that a man was standing in front of him. Bastian had to look down again, staring back at the man through the mirror of blood on the ground, suddenly afraid to meet the man's gaze any other way. The man had fire in his eyes, Bastian thought to himself. Fire-for-eyes, like the Red Woman. The man would open his mouth, but no words were spoken. Instead, blood and fire were spouted out, an ichor that ran as a torrent under Bastian's boots. A flood that poured across the fields and forests of Hamley. An ocean that floated Bastian to Thain's edge, and threatened to cascade off into the void. The blood seemed a frightening thing: a massive force that swept away all resistance. As a whole it was mindless and it couldn't be stopped. Were it to be viewed from on high, it would seem to cover the entire island in its molten embrace. From within the deluge, violent whirlpools threatened to rend Bastian limb from limb. He was caught within, but there were still options open: choices to be made. A voice, or the echo of a voice would remind Bastian before he awoke: "You cannot fight the Blood; you can only surrender to it."
The dream always ended there. What did it mean? Maybe the Red Woman knew.
Somewhere along the Long Road Westward, camped at the intertwining feet of Mt Drakamyre and the Grey Mountains, men scuttled along as they laboured to set up a perimeter. One man was holding a banner he was trying to hang on the side of a tent. The banner bore the symbol of a flaming sword. The man had fire in his eyes.