Storms over Kelerak, Part II - Page 4 - Myth-Weavers

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Storms over Kelerak, Part II

   
^^^^
(Yeah, this one's in two posts. Got interrupted halfway through posting, so dumped what I already had and came back later. See above for the first bit.)





Every instinct he had screamed at him to flee, but Makkah bore straight into the flames without hesitation, and his brother came right after him. Ahead of the pair, a tree began to fall, just slowly enough for one to get through the gap, but not the second. Being in the lead, Makkah purposely slowed his breakneck pace, bracing himself more for the primal terror, rather than the pain, that would momentarily assault his nerves.

He threw up his club, bracing it against the creaking trunk, leaning his full weight into it. Had he thought before the urge to flee was almost overwhelming? Belief formed through ignorance! Now, desperately trying to hold his ground, fire dripping around him, Makkah truly understood the nature of fear. Yet he stood his ground anyway, his entire body flinching at every spark that drifted past him.

No five stallions in their prime could have stopped that tree from coming down, but stopping its fall was not Makkah`s goal. One, two, three seconds. That was all it took, and Harrah passed him. The air was too smoke-filled to waste precious breath on calling encouragement, so no words were spoken. Makkah exerted himself once more, pressing up against the club. For an instant, the tree was held motionless, roots aflame and cracking apart, and the young centaur hurled himself clear before the whole thing came down.

He caught up with Harrah far too soon, his brother bucking frantically as though he were a common yearling being broken in, beating madly at his mane where a branch had become entangled and bound him to another tree. Makkah reared up with a scream, barely avoiding the lashing hooves that had nearly split his face in two, and almost overbalanced straight into a hut that was somehow still standing.

There was no time for niceties. He backed up a step and swung his club, smacking Harrah on the haunches so that he was the one who lost his balance and fell. The branch was a sturdy one, but not enough so to bear the full weight of a centaur stallion, and it broke immediately. Though Harrah yelped in pain as a fair portion of his mane was torn free in the process, the sudden shock of it proved enough of a jolt to bring him back to his senses.

He was scrambling back to his hooves, leveraging himself up with his own club, when he spotted movement out of the corner of his eye. Harrah turned his head to see more clearly, and felt his bladder empty. Encircled by dancing fires that glowed off her skin, body and blade blackened with the dark blood of orc and hobgoblin, a monster had noticed their arrival. Superficially, it resembled the stoic warrior, Embla, that they had met on the road. It was the same general size and shape. It even had the same sword. There, however, the similarities ended.

Every part of it was in furious motion, the muscles writhing such that they seemed likely to tear free of the bone, the limbs shaking their image to a blur. Horribly, its hands were almost still, the massive sword barely trembling as it was turned to face its next prey. Worst of all was the face, with one eye bulged almost from the socket and the other sunk inside. The veins along its temple pulsed so violently it seemed the skin might burst. Blood and froth already poured from its mouth, which had ripped apart at the cheeks, and the crimson gullet stared out like an eye from behind shredded lips.

Harrah had previously assumed that the large woman they had met had been nothing more than a notably oversized human, a freak of nature. Bizarre, but comprehensible within his existing framework of how the world worked. Now he saw that this assumption was incorrect. Hundreds, maybe thousands of years ago, then there had been human blood introduced to this monster`s ancestry. Whatever they had mingled it with...now that, perhaps, was closer to what he was seeing at this moment.

Step by step, the monster moved closer to the centaurs. Makkah had frozen in place and was making a low piteous whine in his throat, the sight too much for him. Harrah felt his own courage buckle under the strain. The irony was not lost on him. This was what they had risked their lives to save? Ridiculous! The only thing that needed saving was themselves!




>>>>>

I really wonder what the original risari giants were like. Cyclopean? Aldran? Elemental? Lovecraftian? A mixture? I genuinely don't know. And just perhaps, in her current state of disease and injury, Embla is giving the modern world a (distorted) glimpse of them. I'm genuinely unsure here as well.

Uh oh, I am now very much in fear for the two centaurs...

The monster howled wordlessly at Makkah, but the centaur was in such a state of shock that he remained frozen in place, thereby saving his life. Harrah, having already panicked and regained some of his nerve, was less stoic and reflexively thrust out his front legs against the earth, forcing himself to all fours. The sudden movement drew the monster`s attention and it spun around at once, lunging at him with its sword aimed at his upper torso.

With the burning tree fallen behind him, Harrah could not retreat, and had barely enough time to raise his club to block the attack. The very crudeness of his weapon saved his life, as the sword plunged itself into the solid wooden mass and stuck fast, with about an inch sticking out of the other side. Adrenaline surged and he pulled at the club with all his strength, seeking to disarm his opponent, or at the very least throw them off balance. The impaled club scarcely moved, for the monster had tried the same tactic, and in raw strength outmatched the centaur. Had Harrah not been using his greater weight to add leverage to his efforts, he would have been the one suddenly lacking a weapon!

Might be it thinks less than a rock now, Harrah realised immediately. Can still fight proper rippa. Haf'ta try some dirty moves on this'un.

In a single fluid motion, he stopped pulling his weight back, raised his hands over his head, and thrust himself forward as the conjoined weapons were lifted out of the way. Superior body mass won this contest. The monster struggled to remain standing against the impact, but overbalanced and fell back. The centaur, meanwhile, easily braced himself with his hind legs and did not follow his opponent to the ground.

Two legs good, four legs better! Harrah thought to himself madly. Oh Hesh'love, it`s still holding the toothpick.

The monster had indeed kept its grip on the sword, if not the ground, and even though it was lying prone under the centaur, was barely hindered in its efforts to pluck Harrah`s club from his hands. In fact, its furious thrashing had already landed the first hits of the duel, as it kicked out and struck at Harrah`s front shins and knees.

He felt his front legs betray him far quicker than they had any right to, giving way under the repeated strikes and bringing him down before he could even try to reorient himself to safety. When his hind legs` scrabbling failed to keep his rear half aloft, and his side slammed into the earth and drove the breath from his lungs, Harrah`s fingers flew apart.

At once, the monster rolled to one side, pulling the club away from him before he could recover. With terrible deliberateness, it turned its sword so that the club trapping it was parallel to the ground, and then kicked down. The sword resisted freedom for two further kicks, but when it was released and swung back for the killing blow, Harrah saw his doom reflected manifold amid the blood streaks.

Time slowed, and Harrah wondered if his death might be quicker than those of the hobgoblins. Some had still been alive when the fires reached them, but with severed limbs and shattered bones, they could not have escaped. The monster had not cared to finish them off. Once they had been rendered unable to fight back, the sword had turned aside to claim a new enemy. A horrible way for anything to go, no matter what it had done in life. Certainly a fate that this young centaur had done nothing to deserve.

Strangely enough, it seemed to Harrah that a tree was approaching the monster`s head. The tree was screaming too, which was particularly bizarre, especially since it sounded a lot like his own voice. Incredibly similar to his voice, merely raised to a painful volume. Realisation struck him at the same time as his brother`s club struck the monster`s head. It let out a surprised grunt and fell away from Harrah.

"Soz, had a slight freak out there," Makkah said, his voice hoarse from the scream. "Stand up bro, d'ya want to have me say you were 'well done' cos of how cooked you were?"

Harrah reached up to take hold of Makkah`s hand, words of gratitude failing him, when a flash of steel came between them. Makkah started screaming again, this time in agony as he reared up, clutching at the stump where his hand had been just a moment before. Impossibly, the monster had neither been killed nor incapacitated by the direct blow to its skull, and though its ear had been torn loose and its own blood pumped profusely from the wound, for the moment it showed no signs of stopping its relentless assault.

This time, when it made a sound, there were words hidden in the noise, gargled in blood and spit in a foreign tongue that only it knew. Yet the centaurs understood the meaning well enough. The sword began to swing once more, whistling through the air in an arc that would disembowel the rearing Makkah, and leave it in the perfect position to come down in a decapitating blow for Harrah. The fallen centaur closed his eyes, shaking his head in futile negation.

At the last, the shrill whistle changed to the sharp CLANG! of a bell.

*****

Harrah opened his eyes, then closed and reopened them again, not daring to believe what he saw. The monster`s sword still quivered mere inches from Makkah, but a spiralling wand of ivory was pressed against its edge, holding the terrible blade in place. The reverberations of this impact still lingered in the air. Around him, Harrah could sense the raging fires being quelled by a very familiar holy power. At the base of the spiralled ivory, a dark eye glared out at Harrah with more reproach than concern.

"Every thanks I have, my lord Hengruen," the centaur breathed, almost inaudibly, to which the mighty unicorn gave a dismissive snort.

It also gave a dismissive flick of the head, disarming Embla as if she were no more than a halfling child with a stick. Her sword, deeply chipped - for only the strongest of magical blades could sever the horn of a unicorn whilst it still lived - flew from her hands and far from her reach. A number of other unicorns, smaller and less majestic than their leader, appeared to stand guard over the blade. Several more, along with some fully mature centaurs, sped up to the wounded stallions and helped them away, with one of the unicorns touching her horn to Makkah`s stump and letting its magic seal the wound before he lost too much blood.

This turn of events did more to delay Embla`s rampage than even her head injury. For some seconds, she stared uncomprehendingly at her emptied hands, before predictably balling them into fists. Though the unicorn Hengruen was not so tall as the centaurs, and so had to look up to meet her gaze, he was possessed of such a serene confidence that some semblance of warning broke through the haze of rage and rabies, and caused Embla to hesitate.

She stood, shaking and confused, staring at nothing. A soothing not-voice drifted through the turbulence of her mind, using the All-Speech of the immortals, both sacred and profane. Had it been spoken to her aloud, Embla could not have understood it, though perhaps Aidan might have caught a word here or there. In the dialogue of thought, however, there were no barriers to communication, and unicorns, as agents of the celestial realms, had been given this gift so that none who served the powers of Good might be silenced to each other.

<Come back to us,> the unicorn thought to her. <You have dealt deserved death enough this day. Time now to rest. Come back to us, warmaid. Help us now return home those who suffered, to heal and comfort.>

Embla`s thoughts were less organised than those of the unicorn, but clear enough: <No comfort! They deserve none. They let this happen to them! They did not fight, but wept and pleaded. Their own fear was their captor. Not broken legs, or tight bonds. They allowed themselves to be taken and used! Those females are not women! Those males are not men! We should have slain them all.>

Hengruen flinched at the mental bile spilling into his head. As one who had fought and banished several fiends in his life, it was technically far from the worst thing he had ever experienced, but it certainly was the vilest that had ever come from a mortal. Emotionally, that made this even more terrible.

Under most other circumstances, he would have cast out this creature from his territory at once. However, there were a number of extenuating circumstances to consider. Her illness was but the least of these, alongside the fact that she had done much to expunge an evil today. His natural inclination towards mercy and forgiveness rested in the middle. His orders took ultimate precedence.

He took a step forward so that she was within reach. She did not seem to realise, still ranting in her head - though Hengruen had closed off his own mind to it, unwilling to be further polluted - and spitting invective in her own language. It could be but the work of a moment to drive his horn into her belly or ribs, or up into her throat, and end her. That was not his purpose. His horn pressed against her skin, sending its magic into her ravaged flesh.

To heal everything that was wrong with her was beyond his strength, even if he had spent the entire day channelling curative power for that express reason. He settled for the very worst injuries; the head, the split cheeks, the eyes, the unending self-destructive rage. The last of these was perhaps the most immediately important.

With a gentle sigh, Embla crumpled into a heap. Less gentle snores drifted up to Hengruen, as he considered what to do with her next. She would need to be kept under watch for a day or two, whilst he and his brethren did what they could to heal all the wounded villagers of their physical pains, and begin the long and slow process of healing their mental ones. There was also the question of what to do with Zindri, whose disobedience had taken her and her companions into the heart of danger, and had cost Makkah a hand.



>>>>>

So...yes. Embla's response? That's the Base Breaker moment I was referring to back in Part I. What can I say? Some puerile line about "even the best people have some evil in them?" Accurate, but insufficient. There are many things horribly wrong with Risarvinni society, and Embla is the embodiment of its extremes, both good and bad.

"To the Hells with blaming yourself, stop that grovelling before he gets the wrong idea!" Isolde whispered urgently.

Aidan ignored her and remained kneeling before the leader of unicorns, Hengruen, head bowed before these holy emissaries, lips moving in recitation of whichever hymns he could recall. The unicorns and their centaur allies had been only a few minutes behind them, dispatched to retrieve Zindri the moment her mother had learned of her disobedience. About half stayed to start healing the worst injuries of the rescued villagers, whilst the rest crested and then descended the hill to save Harrah and Makkah.

The paladin had already bowed deeply, hand-over-heart salute, upon first sighting these creatures, but it was not until Hengruen had returned with two of his centaurs carrying the sedated Embla, and with Makkah missing a hand, that Aidan fully bent the knee to them. It had been his choice to bring Embla along for this, rather than insisting on immediate healing for her sickness, and the consequences of that decision were as much his responsibility as hers. Now, having explained as much, he awaited judgement.

"No, I`m really completely serious!" confirmed Isolde in a mortified hiss. "Stand up right now. You are embarrassing me!"

<Such humility is becoming of one who made a decision out of arrogance, for all the good intentions behind it,> Hengruen stated, the tone of his thoughts as calm as ever. <It is a rare event indeed for one to realise the error they have made and seek repentance for it.>

"The only mistake he`s made today is submitting to a jumped-up pony who ought to have been gelded and broken as a yearling," Isolde growled.

Hengruen whirled about with a snort, towering over Isolde: <There were superior ways to go about->

"And you can stuff your self-righteousness into a nose bag and choke on it!" the halfling interrupted savagely, not intimidated in the slightest by the majestic celestial, or slowed by Aidan`s horrified attempts to silence her. "We risked our lives to save these people, while you star-eyed fillies left them to be...that! Things didn`t work out perfectly, no. Forgive us for being mortal and fallible."

"At least we tried to do something. You? Where were you when the fresh dead were spitted like boar over the fires? Where were you when the wailing living were used as rags to be stitched back together time and again until they were no longer amusing? Prancing along a meadow whilst their families broke their backs to gather in a ravaged harvest and raise up new walls over the ruins of their homes."

She paused only long enough to catch her breath, the unicorn waiting with shocking politeness for her to finish.

"And you came to, what? To help, or to arrest the young ones? They are a thousandfold more noble than you, and a credit to their race indeed. A credit that I would be proud to stand alongside in defence against such as you! The only creature here that should be ashamed is YOU!"

<And ashamed I am,> Hengruen acknowledged unexpectedly. <I too made a choice out of arrogance. I swore to cherish, to protect, and to obey. I believed my obedience would never be tested. When it was, my oath to protect was weighed and measured and found wanting, and I obeyed the order to leave the enslaved to their fate. For this, I shall be judged more harshly, and yet at once more fairly, than would be this paladin in my court. He listened to his heart. I did not. I am thus unworthy to render judgement upon him.>

<Nor may I condemn the brothers for their actions. They adhered to their oaths of loyalty and companionship, and by your accounts, fought with honour. And to return to the burning camp! To take even a single step towards unconstrained flames is an act of great courage for a centaur. No, they have earned such respect as has not been seen in ten generations for what they accomplished here today. Zindri, however...oh Zindri, who led them into this danger and heroism, will have to explain herself to her mother. I do not envy her that consequence of leadership. The Ippotigrean Queen does not look favourably upon disobedience. Come, let us go.>

Isolde blinked, struck by the familiar title, although it was not quite how she had remembered hearing it. She was certain she had heard it before, and in remarkably similar settings to...wait! The last time she had been in Kelerak, during her brief stay as a prisoner of the Silver Duke`s treacherous seneschal. Had Isolde not heard the Silver Duke make mention, in one of his bouts of insanity she had thought, of a peace treaty he had been negotiating with a 'Striped Queen Ippotigris and her unicorn army'?

And now, here she was, in the same region of Kelerak, with a considerable number of very competent unicorns around her, about to be escorted to 'the Ippotigrean Queen'. Coincidence was something Isolde believed in, but there were limits to this faith, and they had just been reached.

That gibberish he spouted was a real thing? she wondered, stunned into silence. He wasn`t just imagining something completely ridiculous? What the...what?




*****

Foreshadowing for this meeting, incidentally, was written up back in March 2017. I didn't even know roughly where the stories were going then, but I DID know that I would have to reintroduce some of the old background references.

It was great. It made Embla, an already complex character, even more interesting.

And unicorns, and Isolde giving them salt. Haha so cool.

Broadly speaking, centaurs were all the same the world over, in the same way as humans or dwarves were the same the world over. Knowing this did not make it come as any less of a surprise to Brokk when the unicorn Hengruen ushered them into the presence of the Ippotigrean Queen, and he suspected he understood at last the strange appearance of her daughter Zindri.

<A simple bow will suffice, paladin,> Hengruen stated as Aidan again bent his knee. <Especially after what you have done this day. We do not stand on full ceremony here.>

"Too bloody right we don`t!" Isolde was heard to grumble. "Shut it, Aidan, I`ll have my say, especially when I`m in the right."

Brokk, ignoring them, was studying the royal centaurs, and Hengruen also, as closely as he could. Though biology was not exactly his area of expertise, it did not need to be for the wizard to identify the similarities his subjects shared. The queen had skin so black it was nearly blue, and her lower body was confusingly striped with white, but her general build and facial features were the same as her daughter`s. The silvered hair running through Zindri`s mane and tail was also a clear match with unicorn hair, and her pupils were not the circular points of her mother`s, but the stretched ovals of a horse.

Small wonder Hengruen was in the lead for her retrieval, Brokk thought to himself. If he is not Zindri`s father, then he is her uncle. Oh no, what`s Isolde doing now?!

"-and you should be proud of her for doing so," the halfling continued her diatribe, taking aim now at the Ippotigrean Queen. "You know who else obeys orders without thinking about them? Vale slaves! No questions, just obedience, and all of a sudden you end up with the Dark Occupation and four hundred years of suffering. What? You got a defence for that order, your majesty? Go on then, tell me what it is!"

The Ippotigrean Queen, her face twisting into various expressions of distaste and anger, spoke sharply in a language that seemed to contain more hums and clicks than actual words. Brokk, being more familiar with languages than the others, realised that although she clearly understood Kelevan, the nuances of her response would be lost outside of her native tongue.

Hengruen interpreted: <Marius Sonnesberg broke the peace treaty first. Those dark folk came from his estate, where he had offered them sanctuary. We moved from their path, but the farmers chose to stay, to their cost. As far as her majesty was concerned, this was the fault of the Silver Duke, and if his people were paying for it, so be it. Also, the queen wishes to remind her guest that bridles can be fitted to hositan mouths as well.>

Isolde began to make a sound deep in her throat, not unlike a copper kettle reaching boiling point, but this time, Aidan was ready for her, clapping his hand over her mouth and whispering furiously into her ear as she wriggled to break free. For a few moments more she continued to struggle, very nearly escaping his grasp, then suddenly settled, defeated by whatever he said. There was a grudging, half-satisfied smile on her face however, that Brokk did not particularly like the look of, but before he questioned that, there was something he needed to do first.

"Your highness, if I may be so bold," Brokk began, stepping forward. "But I am troubled by some of these statements. What peace treaty did the duke break? How are you sure that the dark folk came from his estate, and had been sponsored by him, at least up until then? These are serious accusations, as I am sure we all appreciate, and I confess that I, if not my friends, require some more information. Might you enlighten us as to your people`s history with the Silver Duke?"

The Ippotigrean Queen nodded approvingly. These were queries she could tolerate. With one final glare at Isolde, making sure the halfling knew to keep quiet, she began to speak, and Hengruen translate.

*****

FIFTH INTERLUDE

The year was 8165, and the attempt by the monstrous Barghevor to retake Dragonspur had been pushed back, his army scattered and the cambion himself hurled back to his hidden fastness to scheme and plot. However, a sizeable contingent of his forces, rather than splitting apart, had been seen marching northeast in a strangely organised manner, despite the vast majority of their leadership having been killed in battle.

Teventir Orcslayer, the fiercest warrior to have rallied to the cause of the Lords of the West, and who had led the mob which drove out the dark folk from Wyvernia, immediately set out in pursuit of these remnants at the head of three hundred hardened volunteers. Two days later, the news came that he had been had been slain in a duel at the Kel Crossing and his troops sent fleeing back along The Trek from the border of the Eaglesreach.

It was Hengruen who was sent south to confirm the reports. And, perhaps more crucially, the rumours. It did not take him long to spot the convoy heading deeper into the Eaglesreach. It was impossible to miss, in truth. Hundreds of displaced dark folk, marching steadily to the very heart of the dukedom, unhindered by its patrols or residents, and led by a figure that none who saw him could fail to recognise.

The Silver Duke walked, though he had a horse to ride, and as Hengruen continued to shadow the convoy, the unicorn observed the Silver Duke speaking amiably to the dark folk, even when they did not respond at all, or perhaps shied away from him as a beaten child might from a raised fist. Curiously, none dared to attack him, even though he was but a single old man and they were many, with legion-bred hobgoblins and even a few bazoks among their number. Instead, they seemed to treat him much as they might have a Hoth, and this alone would have intrigued Hengruen.

For a few days, the convoy rested at the small township of Arbor, its citizens doing what they could to ease the pains of the dark folk. There was some grumbling, no small amount of hesitation, and a fair bit of caution from both sides, but Hengruen was startled to see how quickly and easily the Silver Duke had caused his people to take in those that, until just a few days earlier, had been coming into Kelerak for the express purpose of bringing the country back into the thrall of the Wintervale and its Lords of Sin.

When the convoy resumed its course, irrefutably heading towards the ducal estate, Hengruen knew he had seen enough and heard enough to make his report. He also knew what would be his queen`s response to the appearance of so many dark folk near to their current territory. Next to her daughter, paramount in her mind was vengeance for what she had suffered, and for the devastation of her herd all those long miles away in the little-known land of Binjala.

Outright war was impossible. There were simply too many of the dark folk and too few of the centaurs, even bolstered by their unicorn allies. Raids were reasonable, however, and ambushes aimed at sowing terror and confusion, and perhaps killing some of the new commanders. Worse, if the dark folk were being aided by the Silver Duke, and even his people, then even fleeing into Anaria would not be a viable option. The marital alliance between the Eaglesreach and the Cavebear Anarians had ensured that route of egress was closed off to them now.

This type of subterfuge was not exactly pleasant for Hengruen, who was more used to declaring open challenges and vanquishing evil with considerable odds against him, but even a unicorn must be willing to put aside heroics to ensure his survival and that of his fellows. It did have one vaguely amusing outcome, however, which was that only the unicorns were ever remembered being at any of the skirmishes, and the first of these being known thereafter as the Unicorn Invasion of Arbor.

Whichever way you looked at it, Hengruen concluded, there was something inherently funny about the phrase 'unicorn invasion'.

*****

For the seventh time that week, Hengruen thought that there was nothing quite so disturbing as the sight of a orc sincerely trying to smile reassuringly. They were simply not built to inspire anything other than fear and hatred in other creatures, and this scenario was not becoming any less unsettling for its growing familiarity.

<Wipe that look from your face and speak your message again,> the unicorn instructed sternly.

"Yessir yer honour, right away," the orc said in crudely accented Farlandish, evidently trying to impress the point that this was an important message. "Right, so it goes summat like this: 'This whole ignoring me is proper boring now. I`s just not unnerstanning why you ain`t wanting to at least have a chat. You`s a king, I`s a duke, we oughtta be having a chinwag before we goes straight to warring. If we two can`t settle this like grownup horses, what sorta hope is there for the world?'. That`s all of it, yer honour. He says he`ll be waiting at the same spot as yesserday. And the day before. And the day before that. You gets the idea, yer honour. Um, just so I knows, will you be sending me back and not killing me?"

<Stay silent and I just might,> Hengruen answered, and the orc`s mouth snapped shut quicker than a trap. <I will confer and give you an answer shortly.>

The unicorn turned, leaving the bound orc with his glowering centaur guards. They were less than pleased to have this creature here, so near to their queen, but orders were orders. The first three messengers had been killed out of hand, but one of the unicorns had been out on patrol when the fourth was spotted, and had ordered its capture instead of summary execution. Each one had given much the same message. The Silver Duke was formally requesting a truce and a meeting between leaders, so that the raids against the dark folk in the Eaglesreach would stop.

This tenth emissary was the first to have been brought this far. The others had been turned away further out, or killed when they become violent, but the consistency of the messages and the evident sincerity of the orcs had persuaded the unicorns to give them a further hearing. Had it not been for Hengruen listening to them and convincing the Ippotigrean Queen to do the same, things would never have gotten this far.

Even now, she was less than pleased with the situation: "The servants of Sin have ever been a cunning and duplicitous horde of wretches. We can win this by continuing to fight as we have done. It risks everything to pause and speak to one who would as soon feast on your heart as lash you to a plough. But more important than that, it risks you."

<Say the word and I will stay, my Lammiei,> promised Hengruen. <But otherwise, I must go and meet him. You have trusted me with such matters before. Trust me again, or bid me stay, but before you do either, know that in part, I agree with what he has said. As leaders, it is our responsibility to engage in diplomacy first, and retaliate only when Evil breaks the pact it has signed.>

"If you are captured, it will not be because of the strength of arms he can bring against you, but the strength of magic as well," the Ippotigrean Queen cautioned. "I am no sorceress or shaman-queen, but even I know it will take a spell stronger than any that should exist in Kelerak to keep a unicorn, especially one like you, from just disappearing if truly threatened. If the Silver Duke has such power, then he has merely been toying with us all this time. Worst of all, if this happens...we are done. Our Zindri is done."

Hengruen`s reply was the pinnacle of simplicity. <If.>

*****

Marius Sonnesberg XII, duke of the Eaglesreach, giggled much like a little girl. "But Teventir was one of the greatest warriors in all Kelerak. A terror on the battlefield. An elf with seven hundred years of experience. I am...none of those. Any duel between us would have been resolved in a single blow!"

<And so it was, Duke Sonnesberg,> Hengruen confirmed. <We have been able to interrogate a great many who were present at the Kel Crossing. They all agree that you issued a challenge, he spat at you from atop his horse, and you broke his neck when he attempted to run you through. Then you spun his mount around so that his lolling head would face the Kel on the charger`s way back to Dragonspur. The only things we have yet to determine are how...and what you then said to his corpse.>

"I said 'now you can always look back on your actions'," the duke smiled, his tone nostalgic, before remembering he was supposed to be denying everything. "Or I said nothing at all. Because I wasn`t there, obviously. Are we actually going to be eating anything at this diplomatic dinner, or are we going grazing later? There are some lovely hibiscus in bloom at my estate at the moment. Never eaten those flowers before. Tried roses once, but I don`t like to talk about it much. Thorny subject, but aromatic aftertaste."

<I personally find roses to have a tendency to repeat on you,> Hengruen started, then realised he had been remarkably well distracted. <Ahem, another time. Now, to the matter in question. Why should we cease our work in clearing out all dark folk from Kelerak? What assurances could you possibly offer that the ones you are harbouring will not turn on you the moment your back is turned?>

"My first assurance is that I marched twenty miles with my back to three hundred of them just to reach Arbor," the duke responded sternly, abandoning his pretence and waving his cane forcefully at the unicorn. "And my second is that even the soldiers among them have lost any will to fight. Teventir and his ilk beat that out of them, and worse. They are refugees under my protection, and if you insist on continuing this campaign of persecution, I will demonstrate to you and your Striped Queen - oh yes I know of her - just how Teventir met his end."

Hengruen lowered his horn in warning at the threat, intending to poke it in the general direction of the Silver Duke to remind him of his place. The cane flashed out at once, instantly turning the horn aside, and the unicorn let out a surprised whinny at the speed and grace of the movement. Some seconds passed, the two watching each other. At last, the unicorn stepped back from the duke, respecting the answer he had been given.

<Demonstration accepted. I will inform my queen that the truce may be extended to a peace treaty. She will listen to me, as your people listen to you. Our attacks end today, Duke Sonnesberg. We shall leave your wards alone, for so long as you restrain their violence, and remain close by in readiness. Have we an accord?>

The Silver Duke smiled. "We do indeed. I`m sure you know this already, but there is some excellent land in the eastern part of the dukedom. Human and hositan farmers, mostly. A good place for you and yours to wait for nothing to happen. Also I was completely serious, are we actually going to eat anything now, or..."

Hengruen sighed, wishing the gods had given him a greater capacity to understand mortals, and then his stomach thought of something. <If you said hibiscus, then lead on. There`s a first time for everything, I suppose.>



>>>>>

No, I was in no way inspired by this. [/blatant lies]

Whoa! What is up with the Duke? Who is he actually? This installment was shocking. and I never heard of that band but it the song was cool and hilarious.

Will you have an installment for this month's update?

I'm really hoping to, yeah, I've managed to dust off and finish with everything else that would keep me from this bar one or two minor things, so I've got plenty of time available. Whether I've got the energy is another matter. Hence just two segments for the moment whilst I polish up the next big bit. If I'm lucky, I may even get that out in the next 12 or so hours.

>>>>>



Brokk nodded to himself as the story unfolded, extrapolating a crude future from the pattern of history that had been laid out before him. One aspect of the tale stood out to him, however, which had little relevance to the greater machinations in which he and his friends had become embedded, but had nonetheless attracted his professional academic interest.

"I am not overly familiar with the languages of Eruna, but 'Lammiei' is not actually a Binjalan name, is it?" he asked, then glanced at Isolde with a frown. "What are you mumbling now? We didn`t quite catch that."

The halfling had her arms folded, trying to look like she wasn`t sulking. "I just said it`s a lovely name. For a centaur."

Hengruen snorted. <Almost managed a compliment without a jibe, hositan. You`re slipping! You are correct, sir dwarf, it is in fact a celestial rendering in the Caelestin dialect, meaning 'glory of starshine'. Apparently I manage to mispronounce her majesty`s name even with telepathy. I genuinely do not understand how that can be the case, but it is what it is. So we came to a compromise. Her name in my language.>

"I was taught that natives of that plane had a similar problem with elven names," Aidan interjected helpfully. "As the first to walk the mortal world, their spoken language naturally developed to be different to that of the gods, and attempts to reconcile the two led to the earliest form of what we today call the Old Speech."

Although everyone looked at the half-elf in some surprise, it was Brokk who was most impressed. "They still teach that to you? Even the Sundered did not leave all their learning behind, it seems. Well, that is good news indeed. I had thought that forgotten lore doomed to gather dust in Gloralion or Kibil-Gund. If the ranarim still recall that, they may recall yet more that has been thought lost."

<You use the old names for the Summervale and Wawmar,> Hengruen noted. <You are a Loremaster then, not merely a wizard? Very few of you left living. And the dead have proven especially close-mouthed for the last few hundred years, even when they might hold secrets that could complete the Liberation. Anything you can tell us about that?>

Brokk shrugged uncertainly. "I didn`t have much time with my peers. Events...intervened. I ended up in Farland, then Zeland. The living were unreachable, and any attempt to contact the dead would have led to my joining them. Whatever postmortem pact they may have, I am unaware of it. And no, I cannot help you with it. Events, as I mentioned, intervened."

<A shame. It would have been very good to have seen that issue resolved. We digress, however. The matter of the Silver Duke and his dark folk remains a more immediate one. Paladin?>

"Yes? Oh. Yes! Of course." Aidan considered the matter, looking quite upset. "We, ah, well, we find ourselves in a very difficult position. Kelerak is on the verge of collapse, you appreciate? We came here to bring the Silver Duke to Dragonspur in order to, hopefully, stop a civil war from breaking out just yet. On behalf of Burcan the White, no less. If it turns out that this mad nobleman is still in league in the Wintervale, and we expose this...how can you ask me, us, to be potentially responsible for tearing apart one of the last hopes for peace in the kingdom?"

Hengruen looked away. Instead, Lammiei the Ippotigrean Queen gave the brutally honest answer, in heavily accented but perfectly clear Kelevan: "We do not ask. We command. Evil may not hide. Hiding evil festers like sickness. It rots all, from inside to outside. Evil must be cut out like poison tooth from wound. More poison may come later, but what is there first must be taken first."

"You end this evil. War comes to Kelerak`s barons. You do not end this evil? War comes from the east anyway. What you know makes you responsible now. Which war will you have Kelerak fight? The war against itself, or the war against itself and the east? Choose, but do not dare whine you cannot. Choice is the burden those like we must bear and may not throw aside for but a little time. Today, you rest. Tomorrow, you take your warmaid, and choose."

Aidan blanched at these facts being laid out so coldly to him, and even Isolde had nothing to say. The royal centaur took several deep breaths, calming herself, whilst the others looked away out of respect. Hengruen alone caught her eye for a few seconds, and some personal communication passed quickly between them.

"Before you leave us, there is one more thing," Queen Lammiei said at last, in a softer tone. "Our Zindri. Without you...for her life, we give thanks, and for the lives of her friends, the brothers Harrah and Makkah, we say the same. Now, you are dismissed. All of you. Hengruen and I must discuss punishment for our wonderful, wilful, warrior girl."

*****

It was a subdued party of four that left the farmsteads the following morning. The mood had not been especially good since they had been reunited, whilst a very exhausted Embla - but now definitely cured of rabies, the unicorn healer reassured the others - was busy having half of her scalp and ear sewn back on by one of the centaurs, and provided just enough magical healing to speed up the recovery process without having all of a unicorn`s energy expended on her, as there were others in no less dire need.

With Embla`s memory having been severely impaired by her illness, only the briefest of flashes coming back to her, talk had naturally turned to everything that had happened for the last week or so. She had expressed enormous remorse at the worry and hurt she had inflicted on her friends, and especially the amputation on Makkah, but these positives had quickly been overshadowed by a black cloud.

"The unicorns said you wanted to leave the farmers behind," Brokk had explained. "That they did not fight hard enough to be worth saving, and that that`s why I had to force you to fight."

Embla had sneered at that, an ugly expression made uglier by what she had answered the accusation with: "I stand by every word I said. We should have left the filth to the fate they made for themselves. Had you not stolen them away, Isolde, I would have killed them myself! Orc and goblin, human and halfling, with no difference. All should have burned and bled, as you let me purge Mavarra!"

Isolde had clapped her hands to her ears and fled in shock. Disgusted beyond words, Brokk followed, and even Aidan could muster no more than a horrified 'What are you?' before he too left. Suddenly they had realised that the emotional scars that Mavarra had left upon them were quite different to the ones it had left upon Embla. They had caught a glimpse of the darkest evil in their own hearts, the willingness to kill in the most brutal of ways and the unjust urge to let many innocents suffer so that one villain could be brought low. That was not what had eaten away at Embla thereafter.

For her, it had been seeing how easily the people of these lands had fallen under the sway of a power that did more than oppress them, but demean and degrade them as a matter of course, with the same ease and lack of thought as breathing. The horror had been at how Mavarra was a perfect metaphor for the Occupied Kingdoms as a whole, where the very will to resist had itself been subjugated. And her companions? As she saw it, they skirted the very edges of how life ought to be lived, yet cringed away at the last in cowardice and ignorance.

The evil that Aidan, Isolde, and Brokk had encountered was the one they carried with them, in the temptations of the mortal that made the powers held by the Lords of Sin so darkly attractive. The evil that Embla had encountered, that was prosaic, even non-existent by comparison? Vulnerability and weakness to a force greater than yourself, and the rational desire to preserve oneself at the cost of dignity and honour.

Understandably, with this new realisation, the four friends were left in something of an uncertain position with regards to each other. There was not even time enough for them to work through it all at their own pace, for they would be back at the Silver Duke`s estate by mid-afternoon. There to investigate, to confront, and perhaps, to battle the last hope of saving Kelerak from itself.

"So you aren`t actually denying it? Any of it at all?"

The Silver Duke shook his head, smiling broadly at Aidan. "Perhaps you see now why I wanted you to go out to the Hynaphlund. I wanted you to see the sort of thing I am blamed for, both at home and further abroad in Kelerak. And so very much of it is true, as well. Quite distressing."

Aidan visibly struggled to find the right words for what he was feeling, but the Silver Duke nodded understandingly and stood up, beckoning at them to follow. Isolde already had her hands near to her daggers, and Brokk was mentally readying himself for the sudden need to use magic, but Aidan looked to be taking a page out of Embla`s book and had balled up his fists, fighting to restrain himself from leaping on this crazy, polite, treacherous old man at once.

Walking sedately, straight-backed, his cane more a prop than a necessity, the Silver Duke led them out of the main halls of his estate to some that were clearly less frequented by guests. At every intersection and room, there was an upsurge in tension as one or more guards or servants, ever more of them either partly or entirely orc-blooded, appeared in front of them and were calmly greeted and passed by. Many were clad in garments with designs that were wholly foreign to the eye, and bore no resemblance to the styles of either Liberated or Occupied Kingdom.

The decorations and even the building had changed notably as well, with panelled walls of strange-hued wood replacing the bricks and stones, and paper-like partitions that were opened by being slid on to one side instead of proper hinged doors. Windows became replaced with murals of muted colours and fantastical scenes, depicting plants and beasts unknown, brightly illuminated by paper orbs that were clearly some kind of lantern. Embla`s eyes darted across all this, showing recognition and interest, but the others may as well have been looking at images from another plane.

After a few minutes of progressive weirdness, they emerged into a large room that was clearly a shrine of sorts, utterly bare of decoration or furniture. The far end was dominated by a large statue, perhaps twelve feet tall and carved from a single block of obsidian, of a stern-faced oluk warrior in the unmistakable armour of the Blacksun Legion. He was shown sitting down, cross-legged, on a simple cubic plinth. In one hand he held a stone made to look like a cracked jewel, and in the other, a plaque whose message was inscribed in a dozen languages: Waste No Sacrifice.

The Silver Duke approached the statue slowly, with obvious reverence, and knelt down before it. He murmured something inaudible, a prayer perhaps, and placed his hands on the statue`s feet for a few seconds before rising.

"We are at one end of the estate," he said matter-of-factly. "The family mausoleum can be found just outside the walls. It was originally further away, but this was a more recent extension that my ancestors had not planned for. I don`t expect you to recognise who this is, of course, not by sight. But recognition is what he deserves. This is my teacher and my dear friend Tamarrik, oft-called the Reaver."

"Butcher of a hundred towns, bather in the blood of thousands," Aidan growled, reaching out to grab the duke.

Before his hands crossed half the distance between them, the Silver Duke`s cane had brushed them aside, following up with a hearty smack across the backside. Somehow, this threw the paladin entirely off-balance and threw him into the wall. As he regained his footing, he saw a pair of flashes dart towards the old man, Isolde`s aim as true as ever. At least at first. Then the duke stretched out a languid hand and caught the daggers mid-flight.

Brokk began to speak the words of a spell, but the words died in his throat as the hilt of one of the caught daggers slammed into it, knocking the breath from him. The other dagger was returned somewhat less gently to Isolde, who had to jump aside to avoid the blade slipping into her ribs. She landed with two other daggers already in her hands, ready to carve and slice.

"Is violence the only answer to this question?" Duke Sonnesberg queried, as Embla approached him. "I mean no disrespect by this, madam."

This warning was one that Embla ignored, and she pushed forward, ready to seize the duke by cane and by throat, and render him helpless. Her hands closed on empty air and with a startled grunt, Embla suddenly found herself looking up at the ceiling, trying to work out exactly how she had been flipped onto her back so effortlessly. A moment later, Isolde was snatched out of the air and planted solidly on Embla`s belly, driving the breath from both of them. The duke, however, was not even out of breath after having so effectively manhandled the pair.

Aidan lurched back into this humiliation and was promptly met a sharp rap to the forehead by the duke`s cane, leaving a bright red welt. The half-elf wavered for a moment, cross-eyed and stunned, then a hurricane of slaps across his cheeks sent him straight to the floor before he had even the slightest chance to recover his wits. Lips pursed in disappointment, the Silver Duke leaned down and took hold of Aidan by the wrist.

"You had best remember this," the Silver Duke said.

As Aidan`s hand was pulled inexorably onto the graven plaque, Brokk regained just enough of his breath to shout: "Don`t tou-"




*****

You know, I think I'll leave it here for the moment. This is as good a cliffhanger as any.

Oh man! That was a great cliffhanger. I am still wondering who-- what-- the Duke is.

Can you send me this installment as a word file?







 

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