Storms over Kelerak, Part III - Page 2 - Myth-Weavers


Storms over Kelerak, Part III

   
Niklaus scurried from one place to another in a mad, futile panic as centuries of effort crumbled around him. Every time he thought he saw a way to escape, the route was blocked. What he had been convinced of as his salvation from any threat was now proving to be his own downfall, as the unleashed demons had done no more than rouse the Kelerites to action.

Spurred on to greater heights than they might have ever imagined by their true leaders, the divided assembly he had sought to infiltrate and consume from within for the dark glory of Vornoth, the men and women of Kelerak were triumphing over the foulest beings he had dared to commune with. Even the troublesome outlanders he had been advised to eliminate at his hoped-for barony of Fisherman`s Solace had not been the true danger to his schemes, though by arriving with the Silver Duke in tow, they had clearly been instrumental in orchestrating this downfall.

At his back, inseparable from him, Asta laughed at his mounting terror and understanding that by devoting all of his mental resources to summoning every fiend at once, he had effectively rid himself of any other defence. It was a novice mistake, unforgivable, an idiocy stemming from exhaustion and desperation, and entirely the outcome his betrayed wife had hoped to accomplish with her haunting.

The mightiest fiends he had brought forth were already succumbing. Damion Felmund had finally struck down his hezrou, taking advantage of the Erunian outlander`s surprise attack, and Sir Kelphin`s slow obliteration of his own was proceeding almost unhindered thanks to the holy wards the church of Neltak had placed upon his shield. The pleasure fiends were scattered, falling swiftly to a half-elven paladin with a warhammer and Russel Starsul - who, to Niklaus` utter horror, was now revealed as undeniably a champion of the Firelord himself - whose mere proximity scorched the unclean flesh of the fiends and whose touch set them alight.

Even his glabrezu was faltering under the relentless assault from Marius Sonnesberg, who was apparently impossible to hit, or deflected the force behind each blow so that the demon risked overbalancing at any moment. The dwarven wizard which had broken his curse on Asta had turned its attention from the broken pleasure fiends to this greater adversary, and was enfolding it in spells of weakness and slowing. Whenever it attempted to use its own innate magic, or take to the skies for some kind of aerial advantage, either Burcan the White or the halfling gutter runner, acrobatically using its own bony spines to move along its ruff and slip her daggers between its chest and throat scales, would bring its efforts to nought.

In the midst of this catastrophe, there was still enough sanity left in him to recognise two important things, and it was the second of these that interrupted his efforts at escape. The voice was one he barely knew, having only heard it at one long-ago function, but it spoke to him in the ceremonial tongue of the ancestors whose honour and memory he had defiled.

"Ill met are we, Niklaus Liespeaker," said Brigid Sonnesberg coldly, barring the last possible way out of the plaza. "Did you think you had escaped us? We of the Anar remember. From father to daughter, from mother to son, from past to future, the songs of vengeance have been passed down. Judgement is come. Will you die better than you lived? I hope so."

In the same old speech, the demoniac hissed at her hatefully, "Precious irony indeed, for a whore to condemn my life, when so eagerly did she spread herself before the white hairs of a slop-brained petty-king! How low has been brought the Great Bear, squealing defiance as might a swaddling babe to the chastising hand!"

Brigid`s cold expression scarcely wavered at the insults, but her eyes flashed. By her side, the ethereal figure of Asta hovered in support, and these two daughters of mighty jarls, agents of retribution living and dead, at last faced the great traitor of their people. Niklaus somehow suppressed the urge to shiver, instead casting his gaze about for the one hope he had briefly been left, only to be denied even that.

"Eilithu!" he pleaded to the air. "You gave me this life. I gave you so much more. You abandon me now? Why do you not come to me?"

"She cannot answer," Brigid smiled thinly. "The succubus Lilith was vanquished years past during the rescue of Baron Goldcrown. If any part of her black spirit remains, it is banished to the farthest reaches of Hell. The baron recommended her defeat was kept a secret to encourage any who thought her still active to reveal themselves in search of her. Now, my sister-cousin, let us end this."

Asta matched Brigid`s smile, becoming ever more solid as destiny neared, and intoning a dire obituary: "Niklaus, you were once of the Elk, and you betrayed that trust. On this day, the Bear and the Wolf pass judgement on you that this wrong be avenged. May the Seal carry your soul swiftly to where it belongs."

Relative silence at his back told him that not one of his demons remained intact. The demoniac turned his head to see his former sponsor, Oliver Goldcrown, at the head of those he had sought to destroy. When he looked back, his last sight was of Asta and Brigid as they seized him, broke him, and discarded him. As his soul fled the mortal world to its rightful place amid the tortures of Malor, Asta sighed joyfully and, for the last time, dissipated - and for her were waiting the wondrous glories of an afterlife for the noblest martyrs and heroes.

*****

Within the hour, the chaos of a demonic incursion had ended. It was replaced by the chaos of a political frenzy. Now that the threat had passed, and indeed been overcome by a grand show of unity from all the disparate factions of Kelerak, the alliance had instantly dissolved so that everyone could work out who was responsible for it all. And with Niklaus dead, that meant who was responsible for letting him get so close to his goal.

The Lovelaces had argued it was the fault of the Goldcrowns for sponsoring him. Gregory Danube, one of Oliver Goldcrown`s most staunch allies, diverted the accusation by asking why the Lovelaces had been so easily charmed by the pleasure fiends and had notably absented themselves from battle even prior to that. This had allowed Russel Starsul, whose ignited manifestation had doused itself with the life of the last pleasure fiend, to accuse both sides of incompetence by virtue of moral weakness.

Damion Felmund had leapt to the defence, pointing out that Starsul had not spoken out against Niklaus either, instead spending his time loudly preaching for the renewal of a holy war against the east. Sir Kelphin opined the attack itself was a declaration of war, and that it was important to prosecute whoever may have incited it by, for example, their ceaseless calls for a crusade against the east.

Brigid Sonnesberg attempted to intervene and point out that Russel Starsul had clearly been protected by Flamgart during the attack. The Whites immediately questioned why an Anarian had been allowed to get anywhere the position of baron in the first place, and hinted at some especially devious duplicity as Niklaus` so-called death came at the hands of another Anarian (who had clearly married above her station) and what was obviously some kind of malevolent ghost.

This time it was Goldcrown who pointed out that the Whites had proven even more susceptible to the pleasure fiends than the Lovelaces, and had even begun to direct their bodyguards to aid the demons before the charm was broken by Starsul. To this insinuation, Sir Kelphin and Damion Felmund argued that this was not itself evidence of anything other than weak wills, and in fact, it had not been until the arrival of Marius Sonnesberg and the adventurers that the ghost had been able to manifest.

At this point, Guildmaster Sir Eric Ranolph raised the question of why that happened, and on and on the arguments went, to and fro with no sign of any lasting agreement between any of the groups. To a certain extent, Niklaus` plan to destroy the baronies of Kelerak from within had been one doomed to failure from the outset - it needed nothing so complicated as his centuries of scheming to accomplish, for the nobility were quite capable of tearing the country apart by themselves.

Standing apart from the verbal tempest, Marius Sonnesberg was apparently ignoring everything in favour of narrating his role in the battle to his cane, whilst Aidan and the others watched on in despair. No less upset than they at what was happening, Burcan the White nevertheless maintained a nervous hopefulness as his expression. His face brightened as one particularly insistent cry started to multiply around the plaza:

"A High Moot! Call Osbern out from the Spur. Let us have a High Moot. Let every voice be heard and judged. A High Moot!"

The calling of a High Moot was something even Embla had heard of in relation to Kelerak. Outside of the Founding Laws laid down by Keler himself at the dawn of the kingdom, it was the oldest and most enduring tradition of the nation, and one of the most rarely performed, no more than six times thus far in its entire history. It required every adult member of the nobility, and every anointed public servant such as the guildmasters and the priesthood and military officers, to be in attendance so that between themselves and the king, the most binding of decisions might be made regarding the future of Kelerak. To go against the judgements reached at a High Moot had never been known, and was thought of as practically a sin in and of itself.

"Everyone who is needed is already here for a High Moot!" Damion Felmund announced as the crowd finally agreed on this one thing. "We need but the Green Throne to acknowledge this and it may be started this very day! Lord Osbern will not deny us this ancient right!"

"Ahem, Damion my boy," Marius Sonnesberg interrupted with an apologetic cough. "But you are wrong. We are still missing one person."

The shocked and confused silence was thick enough to be a physical presence. The Silver Duke, unperturbed by the attention of the most powerful and influential figures in all Kelerak, took a moment to scratch the tip of his nose with his cane. Burcan, knowing at this moment that his ultimate gambit in bringing the Silver Duke to Dragonspur had just paid off in full, nearly fainted away in relief as the explanation was given.

"Where, might I ask, is Harald? Assuming he is not still a captive of that pompous lich Ajef the Black over in Dessingrove. Harald would need to be released if he was to attend, and indeed, if a High Moot was to take place at all. Come to think of it, if it`s a rescue party we need to send, I know just the four people for the job."

Oh sh*t! On to Dessingrove.... wow.



Yup. Ajef is that "some Black guy" the gang will have to tangle with according to my post a while back. Thought I'd set them up against an established villain for once, see how well they handle it.

Can’t wait to see how this goes for them. It will undoubtedly be their toughest villain yet.

SEVENTH INTERLUDE

He had spent too long patrolling the borders of his domain to be fooled by the peace on the other side. It was so completely devoid of threat that nobody could have been fooled into thinking it was safe. Just beyond the horizon, the great watchtowers of Fort Sont stood silent, all but abandoned in these tranquil days save for a paltry garrison of fresh recruits. An invaluable cost-saving measure for Kale, as the court advisers had persuaded the boy-king Felmat.

Easy to sneer, he knew, but harder to acknowledge hypocrisy. Carn Marrot was itself practically a ruin, truly abandoned since before his birth nine centuries past, and he had done nothing to rectify matters there in the six hundred years he had ruled this region. There was, it seemed, always something more pressing and worthwhile.

Harald Thodricsson, the Eternal Baron, looked over his shoulder at the imposing, crumbling fortress that still dominated the skyline from Dessingrove. The sudden movement woke the sprites resting in his hair, and the startled pair flittered around his head with anxious cries, arrows at the ready. He soothed them with a word, apologising and promising to be more careful in future. Murmuring sleepily, the tiny fey settled back down to sleep amid the thick green tresses, and Harald felt the gentle warmth of new leaf-like growths appearing to cover them. After all these years, he was very nearly a fey being himself.

Slowly, he turned his head back towards the emptiness that stretched from Kelerak to Kale. Something was coming and he did not know what. This did not unnerve him so much as annoy him. The primordial energies of the Elk Forest to which his life force was bound weakened rapidly with distance, and no amount of practice or experience had proven able to reverse that.

And the Proudfellows took the secret of their totems with them, Harald recalled with regret, thinking back on the exodus of those nigh-feral hositan from their ancient home. Build a few dozen more of those outside the forest itself and maybe then I could see beyond it!

On the other side of the barony, amid the trees he had hunted in for his nemesis, a hawk closed its talons around a fat squirrel. He felt the little rodent`s life slip away. He also felt the savage joy, overlaying keen relief, of the predator securing food for itself and its chicks. All through the Elk Forest and even some of its immediate surroundings, life and death pulsed inexorably, and Harald could feel it all. Until he had accepted it, the sensation had come close to driving him mad, but now its presence was almost comforting.

Nothing else he could do here now. Waiting for whatever was going to happen to happen was not his preferred choice of plan, but since he did not actually have a choice in the matter, a return to Dessingrove was in order - after letting the sprites off before entering the town, of course. Forebodings aside, he still had matters of state to attend to, including one that was supposedly very urgent.

*****

"All right, Alaym," Harald asked of his majordomo, "What`s so important it can`t - PUTTHATDOWN!"

The satyr, caught entirely by surprise, fumbled with the vase in a blind panic, and placed it smartly back on its pedestal. He snapped to attention in almost military fashion, but his eyes struggled to stay focused on his lord as a very obvious sloshing sound came from within the vase. The pungent odour rising from it, and on his breath, was very nearly visible.

"Alaym..."

"I have no idea what you are talking about!" Alaym interrupted defensively. "I don`t drink on the job. You`ve never caught me drinking on the job! I resent the accusation that I`ve been drinking on the job."

Harald raised an eyebrow. "I never said anything about drinking. My predecessor imported that vase from Yrrkune. We are auctioning it next week, as I recall, and you have a tendency to drop precious objects like clingy tavern wenches the morning after. Which vintage?"

Alaym hung his head, shame-faced. "The Nyon Eau-du-Alf Blanc '59. It was just sitting there. Lonely. So I introduced myself." The baron waited patiently and was 'rewarded': "I may also have introduced it to the Selble Syrah '64. They got on very well together."

Frowning, the baron thought on this for a few seconds. "Um, Alaym, I`ve been meaning to ask this since the Davonian exchange. Do all satyrs believe that you get a rose wine by mixing a red and a white, or is that just you?"

Alaym looked up in confusion, scuffing the floor with a hoof, clearly unsure if that was a rhetorical question or not. With a resigned sigh, Harald walked over to the vase, looked inside - already knowing what he would see - and rubbed his forehead in mock despair. Then, more out of a kind of morbid and self-destructive curiosity than actual interest, he sampled the contents. Instantly, he felt his body twist and change from its very core, rejecting the vile concoction as it would poison, fighting to break it down into something harmless.

"I`ve had orc brew that was better than this," he coughed, resisting the urge to vomit. "By the Great Bear, Alaym, how do you stomach this? Or any of those unholy mixtures you come up with?"

The satyr shrugged. "Probably because we grow beyond the tastes of mere mortals before our tenth year. The longer we live, the more extreme any sensation must be to arouse the same pleasure for us. That`s why we don`t couple with you humans or elves for more than a few years after our first encounter: you are too boring. Even dwarves tend to become too fragile after thirty or so years. We always have to look further and further afield..."

"Ah, that reminds me, you have a visitor," exclaimed Alaym. "A very important one, all the way from Kale City. I know, I know. 'Where is his retinue then?' and 'No clarion calls and too little pomp and ceremony for that, isn`t there?' and so on. I thought it strange too. Then he informed me of the reason for his visit. Apparently there is a great threat to our two countries looming on the horizon and as you have responsibility for this part of the border, he wanted to meet with you in secret before it grew to be any greater. I took the liberty of sequestering him in your private study and dismissing the maids for the evening. You won`t be disturbed."

Harald thanked his majordomo, pleased to see that his suspicions and concerns were merited, and that another had apparently learned of their cause. This was not a feeling that would last out this fine spring day, in that long-ago year of 7470 FR...

*****

The feeling of being in a collapsed burrow, or a predator`s grip, or some other prison, was all-pervasive and intense and began the moment Harald stepped through the door into his study. He hesitated, unused to being the focus of this feeling, but shook it off and closed the door behind him.

"I truly admire the trust your servants have in you," said the strikingly handsome young man seated at the desk, turned slightly to face Harald. "If only mine were quite so valuable. I suppose in time they will be."

Harald lunged, but ignoring the figure and aiming to the empty space on its left. At once, a rush of air signalled the evasion of the actual physical entity within his study, and the conditional illusion it had placed to deceive Harald became faded and muted, still acting and speaking as though the parameters of its casting remained in effect.

The source of this illusion wavered into view as its relatively minor invisibility was dispelled by the violence of its next spell, reading from a small leather-bound grimoire with pages of beautifully hewn cold-iron, and a bleak aura sprung up around the towering skeletal horror that had sought to ambush Harald. The baron began to retch and cough at once as his connection to the Elk Forest trembled under the power of an antilife barrier. Still, he kept his back straight and his head up, glaring at his foe.

"Jaef of Kale," he forced himself to say through waves of nausea. "Puppeteer of a nation. As arrogant and narcissistic as ever. You should have made your illusion show someone other than your own young self! Though I remember you being less pretty then than you are now!"

In a voice that froze the air itself, rimefrost forming along the furniture, Jaef sneered at his prey: "Clever, clever. But I have prepared for you in ways you cannot outwit."

Harald snorted, blinking hard to clear his vision as it attempted to fail. "Then I will have to outfight you, lich!"

He held out a hand and from the flagstones at his feet, a thin vine sprouted in defiance of the deadly aura filling the room. In seconds, it wrapped itself around his fingers and began to grow and thicken into something more. As the baron pulled it loose, unmistakable leaves burst out at either end and hardening into cruel blades. The mistletoe glaive quivered in his grip, eager to feed and with its hunger barely turned aside from its own wielder.

This was a weapon that even a lich ought be wary of, infused with the relentless power of life and death in perfect, natural harmony. Jaef responded to its appearance by snapping free an icicle and letting corruption flow into it. The icicle writhed and elongated into the feared staff that had been bound to the lich`s will years past - and just in time, for Harald struck out with his glaive, nearly piercing Jaef through his unfleshed ribcage, but the staff withstood the blow effortlessly and blew the weapon back.

"I have spent decades empowering my Grave-Chill," Jaef proclaimed. "You cannot hope to-"

After its deflection, the other equally-bladed end of the glaive had swept up and cut into the lich`s leg. The hardened leaves of mistletoe reached into the wound, carving their way through unliving flesh. In life, Jaef had been an ambitious and studious wizard of great potential - the arts of swordplay and martial prowess were foreign to him - but as a mortal, Harald had been a raider and pillager of unbridled talent, and a further nine hundred years of life had not dulled his skills in the least. In the brutality of close quarters combat, Jaef was horribly outmatched and he knew it. Had, in truth, planned on it.

The Eternal Baron pressed his strength harder, seeking to amputate the damaged limb, and finding that the lich`s dead flesh had hardened, trapping the glaive inside it. Now he fought to release the weapon, but before he could, Grave-Chill was touched to the glaive and its evil poured out onto it. The magics warred against each other for nearly a whole second, before both weapons shattered. Gelatinous poison spawned from dying magic sprayed everywhere, eating into everything it touched.

Harald crumpled, already weakened by the antilife barrier and unable to withstand this assault. He lay on the floor of his devastated study, wracked with agonies beyond his comprehension, comatose and trapped in a nightmare that could not be ended save by its maker. Jaef, undead and beyond such petty concerns as poisons and toxicity, merely absorbed the necrotic venom into himself, recovering his energies and repairing his damaged leg in the process.

"It will probably take me a century to refashion Grave-Chill even without my latest improvements," he said flatly. "Even so, it served its purpose here exactly as planned and I? Oh, I have the time to do so and more besides. Now, you just lie there until I come back. Then, or perhaps after all of the West is mine, I will take from you the immortality that you did not earn as I did."

But for the tortured, unknowing Harald Thodricsson, Eternal Baron and the true lord of Dessingrove, it would be another seven hundred years before such a hope would show itself.

I am running out of ways to say that these installments are awesome. Oh, but they are.

Curled up in the tree hollow, Bukki mumbled in self-pity, wincing at the ache in his battered tail. He had not even deserved this beating today, but what did that matter to Overseer Gevan? The brute treated even the slave-caste orcs better than Bukki or his cousins. As he had finally been allowed to limp away, Bukki had seen a goblin shake its head pityingly at him. A goblin! That was even more humiliating than being beaten.

The kobold`s misery was interrupted by the sound of voices, and he immediately curled up even tighter. If he was caught out here, it would be the gibbet for him - and then only if he was lucky! It sounded like a small group, maybe no more than four or five hunters, and by the heavy footfalls, Bukki could tell at least some were orcs or bigger. That was lucky. Goblins and other kobolds would know how to find him, and would do so if they were on their own. With a boss along, though, they would ignore any signs they spotted. That way, it would be the boss who was punished for failure. Even goblins could laugh at a hurt boss, behind his back of course.

Bukki listened carefully. There was something not right about the voices. Nobody from the camps spoke like that. There were too many speaking all at once, or in polite and gentle tones, that no boss would allow. Even if it was just goblins or kobolds, there would be a little boss in the group, keeping everybody on track. Nobody would speak out of turn like Bukki could hear happening now. Especially not in human languages. Hoping he wasn`t killing himself with his curiosity, the little kobold peered down and out of the hollow to the four that had approached his secret hidey-hole.

They were a strange group, speaking in strange accents, with many long and confusing words that Bukki struggled to guess the meaning of. Adventurers, obviously, no doubt looking to sneak through the camps and cause trouble at the fort. Foolish, pointless, suicidal. But the little kobold could tell that these were taking their foolishness seriously.

One of them had the sharp ears of the elves and the offensively red hair of Zelish humans. He looked unhappy. Every so often, an expression of deep concentration on his face, he would change his language, obviously trying to recall how to speak this second language. Bukki was startled. It was the Dark Speech that was being practised. Even more weird than that: it almost sounded like this adventurer was trying to gain an accent, not lose one, for his speech was as fluid and confident as a born speaker of that black tongue.

Another, a furfoot female, was making adjustments to a very stupid green hat. Bukki had never seen one quite so stupidly tall and round, less still with those silly feathers dangling about everywhere, and that bright blue sash around the bottom. He guessed it was magical. Not even an adventurer would keep something so ugly around otherwise. He did not pretend to understand why anyone would have chosen to make a hat that stupid into a magic thing.

The other two, a mismatched couple of a red-skinned giant and a hairless midget of some sort, were working on a harness, expertly weaving it out of branches and hessian. The big one was going to be wearing it, clearly, and the small one was going to ride on a platform attached to it. It would look really impressive if it was done right. It would look really obvious too. Bukki wondered if these adventurers were not going to try sneaking anywhere.

They settled down near to his tree, and Bukki crouched back into the shadows. They were waiting for later in the day, it seemed, before doing whatever they wanted to do. He listened to them argue with each other. He listened to them laugh and joke and forgive. He thought of what reward he might get for telling on them.

His thoughts were interrupted by the half-elf trying to make himself sound like the Dark Speech was not his birth tongue, and complaining about it. Several especially filthy insults squirmed their way into the air, and Bukki struggled not to giggle. The Dark Speech was the finest language bar none for such things. Then the little kobold sat up straight, not believing he had heard what he had just heard.

When the name Bukki had almost convinced himself he had not heard was repeated, he knew at once that these adventurers were far more important than any others he had ever heard of. Foolish, yes. Suicidal, also yes. But so important too. Now Bukki had to rethink what he was going to do. Rethink lots and carefully.

So enjoyable to read! I love how well you relay the different viewpoints and perspectives of all the different characters, be they kobolds or kings.

I’m sure you know this btw, but the Lords of the West kill Afej, canon-wise.

Taken into account. As I'm sure you've realised, our little group isn't doing much to change the status quo, but they are foiling plots that would, or could at least threaten to, destabilise the existing canon. I see them a bit like a team of your everyday janitorial/maintenance crew. They've fixed up and cleaned up a bunch of messes that could get a lot worse, but hardly anyone will notice because nothing got any worse.







 

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