ToME: the Tales of Maj'Eyal

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PostPosted: Mon Apr 29, 2013 9:15 am 
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Master of Eyal

Joined: Wed Jul 24, 2002 9:26 pm
Posts: 10228
Location: Angolwen
*fangirl mode*

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PostPosted: Thu May 16, 2013 12:16 am 
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Spiderkin

Joined: Mon Jul 26, 2004 5:20 am
Posts: 479
Location: Blighty
“The mold had spread to cover an area of two square feet and Ellins, the new recruit, swears up and down that it swung a tendril at him while he was passing through the mess hall. The entire table had to be destroyed, the cost of which will be deducted from your guild balance.”

“... I don't suppose my sandwich was salvageable, was it?”

The guildmaster grumbled, finding the flippant grin on Ward's face entirely unendearing. Why anybody within the guild was impressed by his travels or his fancy new armour was beyond him. Ward – and most of the guild – knew that the guildmaster was a dyed-in-the-wool Derthman; for him, the world outside the borders of his hometown was of about as much interest as watching paint dry. While considered a bureaucrat and an extreme stick-in-the-mud, the guildmaster was at least a memorable stick-in-the-mud, as much a fixture of Derth as the buildings themselves. And of course, being master of the warriors' guild, he was no slouch in battle.

“Still, despite your irresponsible gallivanting,” The guildmaster huffed, “You may be amazed to hear that you have not one, but two offers for work. Why people trust such a fairweather member of our guild I will never know.”

“Benefit of having friends, sir,” Ward smiled teasingly, “You ought to try getting a couple sometime.”

“... Unnatural monster reports in the Old Forest. Signs of a new rogue hideout forming in the abandoned labyrinth to the west. Get to work,” Casting his eyes out of a window, towards the torrential rainstorm outside, he added with a sneer, “Let's hope your high-falutin' Last Hope armour doesn't rust.”

    OLD FOREST 1

“Of course my high-falutin' Last Hope armour didn't rust. That's part of what makes it high-falutin'.”

“So, between the labyrinth and the forest, you chose the forest to investigate first. Any particular reason why?”

“I heard the words 'forest' and 'unnatural'. I thought it was that corruptor again, so the old forest definitely took precedence over some rogues hanging around an old maze. Turns out, as far as I could tell, it wasn't that corruptor this time, thank goodness.”

“That's good. Still, were there any actual 'unnatural monsters' you witnessed within the forest?”

“If you count a giant red ant that headbutted me, then yes. Getting a forehead full of exoskeleton really put me in a daze – good thing I got lucky and managed to punt the thing away while I was still confused. Beyond the mandibled marauder though there wasn't much of note around the forest's outskirts... except for that mage, of course...”

“Mage? What mage?”

“A skeleton mage. Found it just wandering aimlessly outside of this little shack nestled in one of the forest's hollows. I found some notes among the runes and infusions inside the shack: Apparently, in his life, he had been experimenting with growing different exotic plants in the forest, and a giant antimagic bush had sprung up right in the way of the only path leading from the shack. He couldn't get past it without getting close enough for it to passively mana clash him, so he starved there.”

“... Karma...?” Myssil said, sounding unsure.

“Not really though, is it? Seems a shame that the forces of antimagic struck down a mage who, on the face of things, seemed to have a markedly unselfish interest in nature.”

“What do you want me to do?” Myssil shrugged, “Tell somebody here to go to the old forest, uproot the antimagic bush and plant it here so I can give it a good tongue-lashing? What?”

“I doubt the leader of the Ziguranth being seen yelling at shrubs will help your order's image much...”

    OLD FOREST 2

“Say, Myssil, you know you said that people who use recall portals altered by that dust the Thaloren warden gave me go straight to Zigur, right?”

“Well, not strictly Zigur, but several Ziguranth outposts and holdings, yes. Why?”

“I think I accidentally sent somebody who wasn't a mage to your... care. Do you know anything about this?”

“I'd have to check the records to be sure, but off the top of my head, no. No non-mage captures have been reported recently.”

Ward bit his lip, “Hmm. See, in the forest I found this man. Big guy, obviously a warrior. He had this really exotic-looking armour – all gold plating and polished white stone, plus he had this massive sun emblem stamped on his chestplate...”

Uh oh, thought Myssil. “Go on,” She said out loud.

“I'm sure there's a more tactful way I could put this but... I think his brain was a little more leaky that most. He kept lashing out at the local wildlife and repeating this other man's name, Zemekkys, and what he was going to do to him when he got his hands on him...”

Zemekkys? Oh boy, this just gets better and better, thought Myssil. Out of the three most dangerous mages she knew, he was the one the Ziguranth had the least chance of neutralising... and the one who could potentially cause the greatest amount of harm. Corrupting Eyal or turning it to ash is one thing, but making it blink out of existence...?

“I figured that he was either deranged or just stinking drunk, so I kinda dusted his recall portal. At the time I thought it just sent people to some cell in a Thaloren jail. I thought it'd be what's best for him. If he was insane, they'd know what to do with him. If he was just pissed, a cell's the perfect place to sleep it off. I suppose the sleep he's experiencing now's the eternal sort, if you get what I mean.”

    Emytira Betrayed! +2 Willpower

“Don't worry, I'm sure that whoever was tasked to deal with this man of yours saw he wasn't a mage and released him,” Myssil lied, “Let's move on. Did you spot any further signs of unnatural flora or fauna within the forest?”

“Hrm, beyond the giant pack of wolves I had to cut through... Ooh! The mold hollow!”

“Mold hollow?”

“Yeah, there was this disgusting little section of the old forest, swamped with brackish water, crawling with molds, jellies, oozes...”

“Ah, one of those areas,” Myssil shook her head, “Nature's last resort.”

“... Excuse me?”

“The slimes, the jellies, the molds. We collectively call the phenomenon 'the ooze'. It's come to our attention since studying it that said ooze is a defensive reflex of nature, in response to magic's intrusion.”

“Huh. Are all of nature's reflexes so... disgusting?”

“Now now. It's fitting in a sense, Ward. If nature is a lifeform, and magic is a disease, of course there's going to be a little pus when trying to expunge it. This 'ooze' is the pus. It may interest you to know that we've recently attempted to harness the power of the ooze, so that it can be wielded by our number. It's strictly experimental at this stage however, so...”

    Level 14! +1 Strength, +1 Constitution, +1 Willpower, +1 Blinding Speed, +1 Combat Accuracy

“Aah,” Ward thought, “That explains that odd sign I saw on my way in here. Something like, 'Oozemancers, please refrain from digesting your Ziguranth brothers and sisters'.

“As I said, experimental. With the emphasis on 'mental' at this point, regrettably.”

    * * *


Note: It was around this point, traversing the moldy path vault, that I looked over at my resource bars, saw the oxygen meter, mistook it for a near-empty life bar, and almost had a heart attack. HOGODPOISONDIDTHATMUCH?!

    OLD FOREST 3

“So, seeing as the two strangest examples of wildlife you had come across so far was an ant that gave you a 'marauder's kiss' and a giant pile of molds, I'm guessing that the reports of unnatural activity within the forest were... exaggerated.”

“Mm. Well, there was the snake that had eaten a bow, of course.”

“Eh?”

“Yeah, this big rattlesnake. Somehow it had gotten this longbow caught in its jaws, and had a quiver jammed halfway down its throat. The poor thing looked like it was in distress, but whenever I tried to get close enough to dislodge the bow it started choking, inadvertently launching arrows straight at me!”

“So, an archer rattlesnake, hm?”

“I tell you, that snake could fire straighter than most of the archers back in Derth. Just about the only way I could get close enough to attempt bow removal was to grab it by the tail and swing it head-first at a rock.”

“Did that remove the bow from its mouth?”

“Nope. It removed its head from its body, and its skull from its head, but not the bow from its mouth. That sucker must've been wedged in deep.” Noticing the odd look Myssil was giving him, Ward added, “Hey, on the bright side, I found a mindstar inside the snake. If I knew I was coming here I would've kept it so one of you guys could use it.”

“Um, yes. While I appreciate the thought, I don't think any of our number are desperate enough to use a nature-infused snake's gallstone. Although I suppose the wyrmics would like to use a dragon's gallstone, but that's neither here nor there. Anything else of note?”

“Yes, actually. I found a little piece of Ziguranth literature: How to Detect a Spellweaver. Was it really written by you guys, way back when?”

“Indeed it was,” Myssil leant back, “While many people – and indeed, just about all Ziguranth – can detect mages simply by sensing their mana, some folk weren't so lucky. It sent a message to the mages too; we're not the only ones looking out for you. Everybody is.”

“Hmm.”

    * * *

Deep within the heart of the old forest, two mighty trees stood beside a babbling brook. One of the trees rustled urgently. The other tree rustled in disbelief. The first tree rustled louder, insisting that it was not joking about a human in the forest, and that something had to be done.

The second tree rustled ruminatively, unsure of how to respond. The brook beside them babbled inquisitively, only to have both trees rustle at it to shut up.

After a long moment's thought the second tree rustled, coming to a decision. With loud, splintering cracks, like the snapping of a thousand branches, Wrathroot heaved itself up from the soil and rumbled away. Its roots had lived on rainwater for far too long – some human blood would be quite welcome.


    OLD FOREST 4

“In my zeal to find any real sort of unnatural peril in the old forest, I admit that I may have wandered a little too deeply, and awoken a decidedly natural peril instead – Wrathroot. Are you familiar with Mr. Root, Myssil?”

Myssil shrugged, “Vaguely. An unusually large and aggressive treant with an elemental affinity for ice that resides somewhere in the old forest. That's all we know.”

“Mm, people in general don't know much about treants. In comparison to other creatures, anyway. I had heard that some explorer had developed a theory on why so many of them show up in the old forest, but goodness knows what happened to him. But anyway, what I can tell you about ol' Wrathface is that it was intelligent. Truly. You see, before encountering Wrathroot I first stumbled upon this great war bear – a real war bear, armour plating and everything. Beating something as large as a bear into submission is draining enough, but it took just about all of my stamina to batter this one down. And just as the bear had fallen and I was attempting to catch my breath, that's when Wrathroot struck.”

“Wily old tree.”

“No stamina, and no handy-dandy teleport tattoo either. Not the perfect position to be in when you've got a giant tree bearing down on you, flinging ice shards everywhere. Despite Wrath's best efforts though, I didn't get frozen to the spot once; that would've been a death sentence. Guess I should thank my lucky stars for all that spell shield practice I had undertaken at the guild.”

“Oh,” Said Myssil, pleased, “You've practiced antimagic combat before?”

“We get all sorts of malcontents passing through Derth, and some of them are mages. Since the warriors' guild acts as de facto law enforcement most of the time, I thought it prudent to get some magic resistance under my belt, just to help out in dealing with the more arcane lowlifes I ran into.”

“So, Wrathroot couldn't freeze you, but you didn't have the puff to coordinate a proper assault. What happened?”

“A straight slugging match. No tactics, no special techniques, I pretty much just had to clobber the thing with my sword until it fell over. Thank goodness I wasn't using a mace! Just the thought of trying to fell a tree with a blunt object makes my arms ache...”

    Level 15! +1 Strength, +2 Constitution, +2 Blinding Speed

“Still, one dead treant later, and I found myself faced with some loot! Somebody had stuffed an old girdle inside one of the knotholes on Wrathroot's body – goodness knows how he managed that without getting his head stoved in by a branch. The scryer told me that it was the 'Mighty Girdle'; amongst its powers, she noted that it's a great aid against expanding waistlines, you know.”

“Really. Do you still have it, perchance?”

“Nah, transmogged it. Why do you ask?”

“... No reason.” Myssil shifted in her seat uneasily, “No reason at all. Now, continue.”

“Right. Along with the girdle, I also decided to rip a good chunk of 'Wrathroot's Barkwood' off of the ancient treant. Treant bark is an amazingly good material for shields, you know. Not so much for armour – if a shield bursts into flames, all you get is a charred hand. A chestplate, on the other hand...”

“I understand. Still, that about wraps up your foray into the old forest, correct?”

“That's right. After the close scrape with Wrathroot I decided that it was as good a time as any to vamoose. Besides, I was already pretty much in the deepest regions of the forest – what else was I going to do there? Have a swim in Lake Nur?”

“Mm.”

“Oh! One last thing I found,” Ward awkwardly fished a dog-eared piece of parchment out of his pocket, “Necromancer primer. Figured you'd be interested in this.”

“Necromancers,” Myssil muttered, resentment forming in her voice as she took up the parchment, “I swear, after corruptors, necromancers'll be the second lot up against the wall when the—wait a minute. It appears as though this primer has been altered somewhat...”

A contentious issue arises when it comes time to breathe life into your gathered specimens - do you act like an awesome, stand-up guy and raise them as lifeless drones, or do you bind the souls of the deceased within their vessels once more like a great big jerk? There is much disagreement on this between the various movements of necromancers, although there really shouldn't be as one side is obviously right. The Beinagrind method of necromancy, whose practitioners are stupid and stink, extols the torturous imprisonment of the soul as fundamental; the anguish generated by the captive spirit makes for a much more effective undead thrall, they claim, which just shows how silly they are. The recently founded Trené method, practiced solely by awesome, attractive guys and gals, however disagrees, claiming that allowing souls freedom not only results in more obedient slaves less prone to rising up and slaughtering their masters (not to mention making them smell nicer!), but also causes your work to become marginally more acceptable to the unwashed masses. Sure, they'll still thrash you, drag you through town and burn you at the stake if they get the chance, but they'll feel ambivalent about it, by thunder! But one day, as long as we show that our hearts are as pure as those of any other man or woman, our work may one day become accepted, and we can all be friends. Support N.A.N.I. today!

“... Huh.”

    MAZE 1

“So, moving onto my second assignment: De-roguing a labyrinth. Unlike the old forest, this job certainly wasn't a false alarm. You couldn't move for stab-happy saps down there! Getting lost in the maze was no concern – their dead bodies proved to be quite an effective trail of breadcrumbs...”

“Hmm. Normally I'd comment on such flippancy, but seeing as we've recently lost one of our number around the area that maze is in, I would go as far as to say that they deserved it.”

“Oh, you lost someone around the maze?”

“Indeed. A woman, archer. Why do you ask?”

“Well, I don't want to upset you, but I did find both an arcane-disrupting bow and a quiver of manaburning arrows amongst the rogues' plunder...”

“That settles it, then.” Myssil sighed, casting her eyes downwards, “She was a fairly new initiate, but still... Continue.”

    Level 16! +1 Strength, +2 Constitution, +1 Blinding Speed, +1 Thick Skin

“Y'know, judging from the amount of loot I found scattered around, I could tell that these rogues were way more successful than the other ones—that I never encountered. There were no less than three golden chests on the first level alone!”

“Hmm. I'm beginning to feel that these gold caskets so many of our number have told me about aren't designed solely for the simple storage of valuables... What did you find within them?”

“That's the strange thing. Every single chest contained a single rogue... and a veritable menagerie of wildlife.”

“Excuse me?”

“Rats, snakes, wolves, you name it. The third chest even had a bear crammed into it. I'm almost tempted to say that the chests were used to punish members of the gang who had broken one of the rules, but trapping them inside animal-filled boxes... It feels a little baroque for a punishment, doesn't it?”

“Trust me, Ward. After reading up on some of the punishments our order has used in the past, nothing will feel baroque to you. In particular, there was one of them which involved being dressed up like a dragon and locked in a room with a wyrmic and a sack of—”

Ward raised a hand, “Yes! Yes! Quite enough information there, thank you!”

    * * *

“Man, did we pick an awesome spot for our new hideout! It's out of the way, warm and dry, and so friggin' complex that Derth's guards'll never be able to find us down here! I musta misplaced three stashes of gold down here just today! Hah!”

“Yeah, I tell you, with this hideout... this is where it all begins. The Red Shirt Gang's gonna become the greatest criminal cartel Maj'Eyal has ever known! You shoulda seen the boss just now. He had found this massive axe and this crazy bull's head helm down here—Ah! Here he comes now.”

“Really? Wait a minute...” The two rogues turned to face the immense minotaur that was thundering towards them down the corridor, battleaxe coated with fresh blood, “... That's not the boss...”


    MAZE 2

“So, down I go into the second level of the labyrinth, happy as you like and minotaur outta nowhere! I swear, it was like the bovine brute knew I was coming!”

“The way your armour would clank when you walk does make a notable amount of noise, Ward.”

“Huh, I suppose... You tune it out after a while when you wear it as often as I do. Still, judging from the carnage down on the lower floor, I could tell that the minotaur had pretty much done my own job for me – the rogues were history. In turn, I could thank the rogues for dulling the minotaur's fighting ability; I could tell that it had expected me to run, so it was quite a shock for it when I started fighting back instead of just scrabbling away. And of course, once you get the initiative against such a sluggish, unarmoured opponent it's all to easy to keep pushing that initiative until you turn it into a victory.”

“Hm.”

“Sure, it tried to bellow at me a few times to confuse me, but after sitting through so many open stage nights back at Derth's tavern... Let's just say I've built up a resistance. One thing I will say about the minotaur though – he had an amazing amount of gear! No less than three outstanding pieces that needed scrying, plus a manaburning steel waraxe that was a clear upgrade over my old sword.”

“What were these pieces?”

“First, the 'Skin of Many'. That was disgusting, so I transmogged it. Next, the great 'Drake's Bane', which was way too big to utilise with my sword-and-board style, so I transmogged it. Lastly... I had only gone and found the 'Steel Helm of Garkul'!”

“Garkul's helm? Truly? You're talking about the orc king from the history books, right?”

“The very same! Amazing that it's still in such fine condition... Well, apart from the giant dent on the front of it, but we all know where that came from, am I right? Obviously, I didn't transmog the helm – still using it today. Got it in my satchel, here.”

“Hmm. So, what with your finding of this helm, your two assignments from the warriors' guild going without a hitch... You must've been quite pleased with yourself. I'm assuming your next actions were to return home in triumph, receive generous payment from the guild, then make haste to the tavern to buy a round of drinks for everyone.”

“Hmhm... Yes...” Slowly, Ward's chuckling faltered. With a long, rattling sigh, he continued, “I should mention, these events? They only just happened yesterday. When I returned to Derth, I recall it was... raining quite heavily. I hoped it would clear up before I got home...”

“Oh... By Ardon...”

    DERTH

“The tempest over Derth. Hundreds dead. Lightning elementals, running wild in the streets...” Myssil gazed at Ward, with sincere sympathy, “... And you were there.”

“I won't lie. It wasn't pretty. More often than not, people killed by the gwelgoroths were burnt beyond recognition, so I suppose that helped me deal with it, in a sense. But not always... The guildmaster, I found his body up against a barricade just outside the town square, amongst a few of the town guard. Looked like he had tried to buy the townsfolk some time, so they could flee.”

“...”

“Funny, isn't it? We liked to tease him for how stuffy and officious he was, but he was still the master of the warriors' guild. To the end.”

“Ward, I—”

“Don't worry about it, I'm okay. People die, right? You can't be much of a fighter if you don't accept that,” Ward nodded, unsure of who he was convincing, “People die. It's fine.”

“...”

“I-I tried to fight off the gwelgoroths. Managed to destroy a couple, but it soon became apparent that, as long as the storm persisted, their numbers were inexhaustible.” Ward managed a chuckle, “I wasn't quite mighty enough to cast my axe skywards and tear the thunderclouds asunder, so I guess I had no choice but to run.”

“... So, was this the final reason for you? The last straw?”

“No, not properly. I've entertained the idea of joining the Ziguranth for a while, but I've always felt that I would have to abandon too much. My friends, my life in Derth, you know. I suppose in that sense, the attack did spur me into joining you – forced me to uproot. It's not like the storm over Derth has vanished, after all. I've even heard it's spreading...”

“It is. Worry not, we're scouring the countryside to find the mage responsible.”

“Hmm. Well, tell you what.” Ward leant towards Myssil, “When you do find him, make sure that his execution is my job. I think that if somebody who hasn't witnessed his actions first-hand does it, they won't make him suffer enough.”

“Mm? That attitude's a little at odds with your previous stoicism regarding this. I thought you'd say something along the lines of 'killing the storm mage being a necessity, and nothing to do with revenge', or something like that.”

“As if. It's no coincidence that revenge is only demonised by those who fear and deserve it.”

“... Hmm... Revenge is only demonised by those who fear and deserve it... Now that's a possible slogan...”

    WILDERNESS

“Now, Ward. My original question.”

“Don't you want to hear about where I went next?”

“Not now. You're going to answer my original question, right now. You just claimed that the attack on Derth was not the primary impetus for your joining the Ziguranth. So, what are your reasons for joining the Ziguranth?”

Ward paused for a moment, as though he were considering the question. Eventually, he began, “Hey, you remember me talking about Robin—”

“Ward, enough! Myssil rose from her seat, her table shuddering as she pounded it with her fist, “The way you twist and turn from this question! You will explain yourself, now, or I will be forced to consider you a spy!”

Unfazed by Myssil's outburst, Ward simply rested his head upon one of his hands and sighed, “I... haven't been entirely candid with you, Myssil, regarding my story. There is one other place I visited, briefly. Angolwen.”

“Angolwen...” Myssil breathed.

“Before any of this. Before I even set foot into the Trollmire. As I was saying, my friend Robin, remember? Scholar, interested in magic, wanted to study in Angolwen? It took some doing, but I finally gained permission to visit the city of mages, just to drop by and see how he was doing.”

“And how was he doing, Ward?”

“Fine, just fine. I tried to have a chat with him, catch up, but he said he was in a hurry. Usual stuff: Stacking books, cleaning...” Slowly, a note of bitterness entered Ward's tone, “Dusting furniture, preparing meals... He was a servant.”

“Ah...”

“Oh, they had a different word for it, I'm sure. Assistant, aide, butler, but he was a servant.”

“All that knowledge. All that expertise. I've read a lot of his notes, y'know – mind-boggling stuff, weavers, manastreams, even theories on the Sher'Tul – so I know first-hand just how switched on my friend was when it came to magic. But guess what? He didn't actually possess magic, so to the mages? He was nothing.”

“It never ceases to amazes me,” Myssil shook her head with empathy, “The look of sheer astonishment that surfaces on a mage's face when they see a feeble non-mage has knowledge of their practices. It's idiotic of them, really. You don't need to contract a disease to study it.”

“The guy Robin served, a sage, he called himself. Ha! The greatest conundrum that fat bastard had ever figured out was which sock to put on first in the morning. Just seeing Robin, my friend, my lifelong friend, bowing and scraping to this... this buffoon, who thought himself some part of an enlightened master race, simply because fate had seen fit to let him launch fires and sparkly lights from his hands! Damn it!

Incensed, Ward struck the table with his fist, just as Myssil had done, only – judging by the large fracture in the wood running from beneath his fist – with a touch more force. Standing straight, Myssil spoke plainly, “So. Your reason for joining us?”

“You want my reason? I'll tell you.”

“Right now, there's a war going on. A war, between the anti-magical and the pro-magical. Folk might not appreciate it entirely, but it's a full-fledged war. I don't like wars, and I know that a surefire way to prolong a war is to pretend that it doesn't exist. So I'm taking up my arms and taking a side, and let's just say that I prefer the side that doesn't see me as an unintelligent sub-human simply because I wasn't lucky enough to be born with magic. That is my reason.”

Myssil silently perused Ward. He had experienced first-hand the disdain that mages viewed the rest of the world with. His hometown had been assaulted by the creations of an insane storm mage, his friends and acquaintances either murdered or scattered to the four winds. He had pursued a villainous corruptor over the entirety of Maj'Eyal, witnessing fresh atrocities at every turn. Finally, he remained highly defensive and secretive about his childhood... possibly because of a bad experience with mages? It was a possibility.

“So, here I am,” Ward continued, “I left Derth, gathered what supplies I could muster, and made one final journey... here. To Zigur.”

    ZIGUR

“So, I've given you my reasons, and the story of how I got here is at an end. Do you accept me or not?”

“Well, Ward, I—”

“Ziguranth aspirant Ward.” An impossibly deep voice boomed. Turning in their seats, Ward and Myssil watched as the Ziguranth's trainer marched into the room. Literally known simply as 'the trainer', he was considered by most of Zigur as a paragon of what a member of the Ziguranth should be: Grim, imposing, lethal in battle, and possessed of a tongue so grave and given to purple prose that even the simplest of statements sounded like a rumbling, earth-shattering epiphany.

“It is time for your initiation, boy,” The trainer continued. Turning to Myssil, he added, “There is no problem with this, Protector?”

“N~No. Of course not.”

Turning back to Ward, an expression crept onto the trainer's face that was most alien for a man of his countenance – a smile. “We have quite a gift you.”

“Aw,” Ward sniggered, “And I didn't get you anything.”

“The man you must face to complete your initiation. I believe you'll be quite familiar with him... Broad? Dark, bloodstained robes? Fond of that most egregious of elements, blight?”

Leaping to his feet, Ward exclaimed, “You're kidding. You got him?!”

“Just threw him into the arena moments hence. He was raving, screaming about how 'not even the mightiest of Eyal's warriors are a match for the lowliest mage apprentice'...”

“Ooh... He's mouthy. That's good,” As Ward prepared to follow the trainer, he turned back to face Myssil, “Are you going to attend? Watching a bulwark vent his frustrations can be surprisingly entertaining to watch.”

A crooked smile surfacing on her face, Myssil rose from her seat and followed the two men from the building.

“I don't think I've been this excited to watch an initiation for quite some time...”

    * * *

“So, here we stand. Are you happy, my little shadow? You've caught up to me at last.”

Stood within the lava-encircled confines of Zigur's arena, Ward was finally face-to-face with the corruptor – an orcish corruptor, no less. Ward had only ever seen orcs as pictures within history books, and while seeing one in the flesh, the green, scabrous flesh, was adequately shocking, he could only think of how he had likely seen much uglier specimens frequenting the tavern back in Derth.

Sat around the arena on simple wooden benches, a smattering of Ziguranth members watched as Ward and the corruptor faced off. Initiation battles hardly attracted throngs of howling Ziguranth, baying for blood, as some would expect, although Ward's battle had drawn an above-average number of observers, seeing as Protector Myssil herself was in attendance. The trainer, of course, watched every initiation, viewing each with the seething intensity that he applied to every aspect of his life.

“Tch, another tin-plated bumpkin,” Muttered a sable-haired woman, skinny yet muscular, a half-empty bottle of Stumbling Treant in her hand, “I'm telling you, he's done for. We best get ready to get in there and put down the corruptor when that prat bites it.”

Sat beside the woman, idly polishing the multi-hued scales that lined his armour, a slouching wyrmic sighed, “Such characteristic scorn, Fearne. Would it cause you pain to trust your fellow man for even the briefest of moments? Brother, you agree with me?”

The gentleman the wyrmic had turned to, a brawny, balding figure who ran his fingers instinctively across the edge of his battleaxe, murmured, “That man will not lose. You can see it in his face. He will slay that corruptor, and furthermore... he will not let it be quick.”

Back down inside the arena, Ward brandished axe and shield, muttering, “Norgos, the Rhaloren camp, the Heart of the Gloom... You've got a lot to answer for, corruptor.”

If the corruptor believed Ward to be a threat, he hid it expertly. Folding his arms, he guffawed, “Indeed, so! I do have a lot to answer for! But to you? To your cult?! Does the conqueror receive judgement from any ant he crushes beneath his feet upon the road to conquest?”

“If the 'conqueror' is trapped in an arena with an angry, six-foot tall ant in armour, you can bet he does.”

“Hmph. How boorish, typical of a warrior. I tire of this!” With a wave of his staff, the corruptor strode backwards, watching with glee as vortexes of energy began to coalesce in the arena, forming crackling towers of elemental energy; faeros, gwelgoroths. “Now, drown beneath a sea of burning flame, of searing thunderbolts, and experience fully the vast chasm that separates your power from—”

* * * CLANG! * * *
* * * CLANG! * * *
* * * CLANG! * * *
* * * CLANG! * * *
* * * CLANG! * * *


“... My own.”

“I destroyed your elementals. What now?”

Unfazed, the corruptor turned from Ward with a shrug, not noticing him stamp forward with his shield at the ready, “I suppose you figure that impressive? Flailing wildly at the dancing lights that are the proof of my power? For someone like you, I suppose it is—”

* * * CLANG! * * *

The corruptor stumbled backwards, gasping, one hand feeling at the blood coursing from his crushed nose. “You... you animal! None have the right to draw blood from a corruptor! It is our own, to use as our—”

* * * CLANG! * * *

“Your window for having an epiphany about how screwed up you are is shrinking by the second, corruptor.” Ward lifted his axe, “Next time, I'm not using the shield. Any twinges of guilt for your actions yet? Any remorse?”

“Guilt...? Remorse...?” The corruptor struggled to maintain his footing. Spitting, he snarled, “Why not ask yourself? This cult, this Ziguranth, how many deaths have they caused?! What separates them from Rhaloren, from bandits, from beasts?! You think that they care about you?! Hah! You're just a tool! In a different world, someone like you... you could have joined me! Stood beside me, as a mighty reaver! Your actions would have meaning, a purpose!”

Lowering his axe, Ward approached the orcish corruptor. “First of all, while I can't condone the body count that the Ziguranth have racked up, how does it stack up against all the deaths your kind have caused? And the Spellblaze? Maybe if we keep at it for another hundred years without a resolution, we'll reach a hundredth of the deaths caused by magic. Second of all, reavers are nothing but poor souls who have had their bodies pumped full of corrupted blood and their brains pumped out – they're little more than expendable killing machines to be thrown against obstacles by corruptors at whim. So no, I think I'll reject that job offer. And third – this is the kicker.”

“Notice how you've only started to rationalise with me now you're in this situation; wounded, helpless, an axe at your neck. When you were free, spreading your blight, and even moments hence... you regarded me as nothing more than vermin. You don't believe a single word coming out of your own mouth – you're terrified, and you're just scrambling to say something, anything, that's going to get you out of this alive. Well, it's not happening.”

Schlak! “Aiiiegh...!”


The corruptor fell to the ground with a crash, his leg scored by Ward's axe, helpless; his 'vim' was pooling out from him by the second. Ward knelt down low, and whispered, “I'm going to get something out of you before you die, you realise. Admittance that what you've done is wrong, reluctant recognition of the Ziguranth's goals... or just a scream. What's it going to be?”

“To... To the void with you, m... moss eater...”

Casting his gaze upwards, towards the lava moat that surrounded the arena, Ward got to his feet, placed a boot against the corruptor's body, and sighed.

Image

“You've made your choice.”

    * * *

“A masterful display, young Ward! A showing of martial might to put even the great Rej Arkatis to shame! Truly, you shall become a sworn brother in our great order!” The trainer bellowed, one huge arm wrapped around Ward's shoulder, “You agree, Protector?!”

“He was okay.” Myssil said distractedly, smiling.

“Ah! Sister! Brothers!” His eyes falling upon a group of three people now leaving the arena grounds, the trainer raised his voice (an astonishing feat, considering his previous ear-splitting volume) and yelled, “Come! Come greet our new brother!”

“A finer trio amongst the Ziguranth you will not meet, Ward! Take for example, Fearne! The most fearsome marauder in the land!”

“Um... Hello.” Ward said awkwardly.

Taking a swig from her bottle, Fearne spat, “Your inconsiderate act of surviving cost me fifty gold, you tit.”

“...”

“Ah, ignore our tempestuous friend there, Brother Ward.” A wyrmic, in leather armour bedecked with a multitude of multi-hued drake scales, swept before Ward to shake his hand, “I am Aloysius, wyrmic, servant of nature, and proud brother of the Ziguranth. It is my fervent hope that you will become a valued member of our order, through thick and thin, fulfilling the great duty that has been placed upon our shoulders by the fates and—”

“Oy, between you and the trainer, Aloysius, it feels like I'm listening to a pair of walking poetry books.” Shaking her head, Myssil directed Ward's attention towards the third member of the group, who was now stood a distance away from the gathering, eyes cast at the ground, “Come over here and meet our newest initiate, sirrah.”

As the balding figure slouched over, Myssil continued, “This gentleman only passed his initiation a few days before you did, Ward. He killed his opponent the fastest out of anybody who has ever taken our test – an impressive feat.”

“Even faster than you, Protector?”

“Oh, I was born into the Ziguranth, I never took the formal initiation. Still, Andrus Ward, I'd like to introduce you to Ben Cruthdar.”


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PostPosted: Thu May 16, 2013 4:42 am 
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Uruivellas

Joined: Sat Jan 14, 2012 12:02 am
Posts: 703
Well, that was the most convincing explanation I've seen of why anyone would choose to join an order of sociopathic murderers.


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PostPosted: Sun May 19, 2013 11:38 pm 
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Spiderkin

Joined: Mon Jul 26, 2004 5:20 am
Posts: 479
Location: Blighty
“Hey you. Yeah, you. The new guy. Ward, right?”

“Yep, that's me. What is it, Fearne?”

“You feeling okay? Not under the weather? That potion that the trainer made you drink; wasn't too bitter, was it?”

“Well, it wasn't pleasant by any stretch of the imagination, but it wasn't that bad. He said it would, ah, accelerate the development of my natural powers.”

“Right, right. Didn't make you feel poorly or anything, right?”

“Nope. Why would it?”

“You're absolutely okay?”

“Yes. Definitely, one hundred percent. Yes.”

“Good.”

Image

Do ya feel okay now, ya bottom-feeding waste'a life?!

As fist met nose, Ward suddenly realised: he had met Fearne before. Judging by her actions, she had only just recognised him as well.

Back during Ward's days in Derth's warriors' guild, one night he had been called to the tavern to apprehend a 'vagabond' who had started a brawl. By the time Ward had arrived at the scene Fearne was standing over a veritable pile of unconscious taverngoers and town guardsmen, broken bottle in hand, an unending stream of drunken curses pouring from her lips, and her forehead coated with blood – other peoples' blood. When marauders drink, they drink. Ward even remembered that it took not one, but three swings of a barstool to the back of her skull to render her docile enough to drag her into a cell. It looked like Fearne had remembered this fact, too.

During the few weeks Ward had spent within Zigur, he had decided to spend some time getting to know his new comrades. What he had learnt about Fearne did not surprise him. A violent marauder, she spent her days putting her pugilistic prowess to use, earning coin through her employment by Maj'Eyal's less reputable “quest-givers”, then spent her nights pissing said coin away in taverns, inevitably becoming offended by something somebody says/thinks/wears, before finally starting an explosive, multi-man brawl that ends up demanding the attention of half the town guard. As far as Ward could tell she held no ideological opposition to magic whatsoever – he figured that she simply wanted an excuse to get into more fights, not to mention win more fights. She had claimed that every single mage she had ever met was a prick, but then again, she also said that of bartenders, shopkeepers, dwarves, elves, men, women, and just people in general.

From what Ward had seen of Aloysius, he appeared to tick the box of every Ziguranth stereotype he could think of. A self-proclaimed “servant of nature”, the flowy, evocative prose, never failing to refer to every other member of the order as 'sister' or 'brother'... He unsettled Ward a touch – too much of a fundamentalist, perhaps – but he couldn't ignore the sheer upswell of morale that he caused in his fellow Ziguranth. With his ostentatious multicoloured armour, his proclivity for giving grand speeches, and his sheer charisma when it came to his 'brothers' within the Ziguranth, Ward would have guessed that he was their leader, if he didn't know better.

And then there was Ben... Amongst all the meandering wilders and wild-eyed warriors that wandered Zigur, Ben Cruthdar stuck out. Most of the time he could be found hanging around the darker, less frequented nooks and crannies of Zigur, shading away if any attention was drawn to him. He would go out into the wilds every now and then – never explaining why, and never under orders – only to return with his axe and his vest bloodstained. A level-headed debriefing to Myssil of what he had done, how many mages he had killed, would follow, and then he would just... go back to prowling around silently. Ward knew that a group like the Ziguranth would attract its fair share of crazies, but he couldn't shake the feeling there was something more to it with Ben...

“Chuck me into your bumpkin town's gaol will ya, soldier boy?!” Fearne snarled, now being pulled back by Aloysius, who had overheard the commotion, “Regretting that decision yet?! Five days I had to stay there!”

Ward held his nose tenderly; didn't seem to be broken or bleeding, so that was good. “It would've just been one day,” He muttered, “If you didn't lash out at the guards that kept trying to get you out of your cell, ya lunatic!”

“Come now, sister, brother,” Aloysius soothed, hands still wrapped around Fearne's arm, “Should we be clashing against eachother like this, when such fire could be directed against those who truly deserve it?”

Relenting, Fearne wrenched her arm out of Aloysius' grip, then stalked away, grumbling under her breath, “
Yeah, gonnadirectsomefireatyerparentshousesyasaps...”

“Poor Fearne,” Aloysius sighed, shaking his head as she departed, “She has been dealt a hand in life that not even a Wyrdthief could turn to their advantage.” Turning to face Ward, he smiled, “How has life been within our little community, brother? Everything you imagined it to be?”

“Barring the random assaults, yeah, it's been peachy.” Ward exhaled, “Still, now I've situated myself and everything, I'm starting to feel like I should be doing something, but it's not like I've received any orders or anything...”

“Aah, I see. I suppose being in the employ of a guild for so long would leave one such as yourself craving instruction,” Aloysius grinned. Ward was needled by the comment a little, but it wasn't like he could disprove it – he was used to orders, “Depending on your standing within the order, formal missions may be few and far between... although, if I'm not mistaken, Myssil is currently attempting to track down the villainous storm mage that destroyed your home, isn't she?”

Ward nodded, “Yes, that's true.”

“Well then, until the happy day that nature's judgement is meted out against your egregious electrical enemy, why not seek out some way you can further the Ziguranth's goal on your lonesome?”

“Hmm...”

    WILDERNESS

As Ward emerged from the northern reaches of the vast forest that surrounded Zigur, he gazed about himself, finally beginning to feel in part the gravity of his decision to join the Ziguranth.

“Huh. I'm not just stood here as 'Ward' any more, but 'Ward of the Ziguranth'... So, what am I meant to do? Just find a mage somewhere, anywhere, and then kill them? Hm...”

As Ward paced along – hoping not to run into any mages for the moment, so his moral quandary regarding them could be postponed – he noticed a bizarre plume of greenish smoke emanating from over a nearby hill. Curious, Ward made his way towards the smoke's source.

“A shack? Out here, in the middle of nowhere?”

Approaching the decrepit old shack that he had discovered, its walls burnt and damaged in places, every one of its windows shattered, Ward rapped upon its door, curious to see what manner of person would live alone in the wilds.

As the door fell from its hinges following his knock, Ward got his answer – an alchemist.

“This is it,” Thought Ward. His first Ziguranth kill-mark. For a bulwark, a warrior whose combat revolves around defence and counters, taking the first blow against someone not even expecting battle was deeply unnatural, not to mention the obvious moral ramifications... Cursing himself for hesitating, Ward thrust his hand towards his axe's haft, and began to speak, “Alchemist... You will pay for—”

“SO! MISTER 'OH-I'LL-JUST-FINISH-QUESTS-IN-MY-OWN-DAMN-TIME' FINALLY MAKES HIS MERRY WAY BACK TO OLD AGRIMLEY'S SHACK DOES HE? YOU LOLLYGAGGING ROUSTABOUT!” The alchemist, his robes merely a set of tattered black rags and his milky-white eyes not entirely focusing, continued to yell, “SO, DID YOU BRING BACK THE INGREDIENTS YET? THE FIRE UNDER MY CAULDRON'S GOT A LITTLE OUT OF CONTROL AND IS FAST APPROACHING THE GEM BOMBS I KEEP OUT BACK, SO I'D LIKE TO GET THIS ELIXIR DONE AND DUSTED BEFORE HOUSE-CONSUMING-EXPLOSION NUMBER #572B HAPPENS TODAY!”

“Pardon?!” Ward exclaimed, his ears ringing, “You don't have to yell, I'm right—”

“OH, WHY DO I EVEN BOTHER TALKING TO YOU PEOPLE? YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND MY WORK AND I DON'T UNDERSTAND YOU FULL STOP! LET ME JUST GET MY HANDS ON YOUR SATCHEL THERE...” Agrimley knelt down and, before Ward could stop him, began rummaging through his belongings, “AND NO DIMWITTED INNUENDO OR I'LL BURY YOU UNDER THE FLOORBOARDS NEXT TO MY FIRST WIFE.”

While staggered, Ward couldn't help but notice that an alchemist being this deranged was a clear argument for putting him down – it was only a matter of time until he caused a cataclysmic explosion, and chances were he wouldn't have the good grace to only blow himself up. Now drawing his axe, Ward lifted it and said, “Okay, that does it! You're—”

“AH! EXCELLENT! STUPENDOUS! A SNOW GIANT KIDNEY, A SKELETON MAGE SKULL... EVEN SOME FAEROS ASH! I KNEW YOU'D PULL THROUGH! WHEN I FIRST LAID EYES ON YOU I THOUGHT 'THERE'S A CHAP WHO'S MAKING THE MOST OF WHAT FATE GAVE HIM'!” Ward thought about commenting on the fact that this was the first time he and Agrimley had met, and that he only had the reagents he desired by sheer coincidence, but already he knew that talking to this half-mad alchemist was a lost cause. Indeed, he had already bustled back into his shack and, following a few minutes of rattling, bangs and cursing, had returned with a small measure of liquid in a clear glass vial.

“THE ELIXIR OF FOCUS, BY YOURS TRULY! TRICKY TO MAKE – I COULD'VE USED AN ELIXIR OF FOCUS TO HELP ME BREW IT, BUT THEN THAT STRIKES ME AS MAKING THE WHOLE AFFAIR A LITTLE REDUNDANT, WOULDN'T YOU AGREE? HAH!” The glass vial was thrust into Ward's hands, “THERE, HAVE YOURSELF A LITTLE DRINK ON OLD AGRIMLEY THERE. YOU INTERESTED IN ANOTHER JOB?!”

“Look, I think you've—”

“GREAT! NOW, I NEED A LENGTH OF TROLL INTESTINE, A STINGER FROM AN ICE ANT, AND THE HEART FROM A BLOATED HORROR, AND I DON'T MEAN MY SECOND WIFE! HAH!”

“I'm from the Ziguranth—”

“OF COURSE, AFTER THE FIRE, I DON'T THINK THERE WOULD MUCH LEFT OF HER. DUST IN THE WIND, IN THE MOST LITERAL SENSE! SO, THAT'LL BE ALL THEN!”

I'm here to murder you, you ninny—”

“BYE!”

Awkwardly lifting his shack's front door back into its frame with a slam, Agrimley left Ward stood outside, elixir in hand, feeling a little awkward. Absentmindedly drinking the elixir, he brought a hand to his chin in thought.

    Elixir Of Focus! +1 Rush, +1 Perfect Strike

“I'm... not very good at this, am I?”

    ZIGUR

“You had an alchemist right there and ya didn't pop him?! What's wrong with you?!”

“I must admit, I'm having trouble understanding the reason for your temperance, brother.”

“I don't know!” Ward said, flustered, “I thought I'd be able to do it, but then he started yelling and I couldn't get my thoughts straight, and then I started to think that if I hit him he might explode and...!”

“Gracious...” Sighed Aloysius.

“Look, I'm sorry, okay? You were right earlier – I'm used to having orders, a clear layout of what I'm meant to do. Isn't there, like, any reports of corruptor camps or necromancer lairs, or anything like that?”

“If we knew where they were, we would have already dealt with them, brother. I suppose you could attempt to cut your way into the Mark of the Spellblaze and strike down the Grand Corruptor, but such an act would be suicide – Protector Myssil has all but forbidden our number from doing so.”

“Cowardly midget,” Fearne huffed, “We should just go in there and kick his head in!”

“Yes... I think I'll side with Ms. Myssil on this matter, no offence.” Ward said.

“Lots taken, prat.” Folding her arms and leaning backwards against a log palisade, Fearne eyed Ward darkly. Slowly, a suspicious grin crept onto her face.

“You know... You could always try to get a sandworm queen's heart.”

“Excuse me?”

“Fearne, don't put ideas into the man's head,” Aloysius waved his hands, sounding apprehensive, “We've only just dissuaded him from one suicide mission...”

“What's she talking about, Aloysius?” Ward enquired, “Why would I want a sandworm queen's heart?”

With a grimace, Aloysius relented and turned to face Ward. “The potion that you partook of when you joined our order, brother. It's said that if one consumes the heart of a sandworm queen, it acts as a catalyst, increasing the efficacy of the potion's effects. Time was that many of our number would travel westward to the sandworms' lair to hunt for queens, but the mortality rate was so high, it—”

“Hey! Myssil!” Raising his voice, Ward called over Aloysius' shoulder to Myssil, who by happenstance was walking past at that moment, eyes cast downward at the book in her hands, “Is it okay if I go hunt for a sandworm queen?”

“Hm? Yes, yes, I suppose,” Myssil muttered distractedly, “Be sure to take a companion though. Now...” Wandering from the group, Myssil continued to mumble to herself, “It's got to be on the ice shelf, it just has to be...”

“What was that about an ice shelf?” Fearne wondered.

“Don't presume to understand the inner workings of the plans of our great Protector, sister,” Aloysius admonished (earning him a middle finger from Fearne, which was ignored), “So brother, who do you plan to take with you on this errand of yours?”

“Hm...”

    WILDERNESS

“Why did you pick me to travel with you?” Ben asked, voice low, “I've never pegged myself as being a desirable travel companion. Surely you would have preferred Aloysius, or Fearne?”

“You can call it curiosity,” Ward replied, walking ahead of Ben as they travelled down a well-worn dirt road, arcing west across the landscape, “Myssil pestering me about my reasons for joining the Ziguranth has given me the inquisition bug. Aloysius and Fearne, I can already tell why they're here. Aloysius is pretty much the definition of the word 'indoctrinated', and Fearne obviously just likes hitting people. But you? It's less clear. So, why are you in the Ziguranth?”

“Mage killed my wife. That's it.”

“Oh,” Ward mumbled, surprised by the blunt response, “I'm... I'm sorry, Ben.”

“Hrmph.” The pair continued their walk in silence for a moment. Eventually, though Ward had not inquired further, Ben relented and began, “I come from a small settlement, just on the outskirts of this forest to the east. I was a lumberjack, most of us were. We called it a village, but in reality it was more of a glorified logging camp – almost everybody who lived there were just lumberjacks and their families, folk who saw the benefit of living where you work. Place didn't even have a name.”

“Really? Then what did you call it?”

Ben shrugged carelessly, “Home, I guess. But still, since our settlement was so small, unofficial, not on any map you could think of, we never gave much thought to security. Throne to the north and Hope to the south, we thought their guards kept the place relatively safe... until he arrived.”

“The mage?”

“He was a fugitive, I could tell that much. Perhaps he had stolen something, murdered someone, who knows. All I knew is that he was on the run, and needed a place to hide. So he chose a home... My home.”

Ward and Ben had stopped, and Ward now turned to Ben as his expression became more distraught, “My wife, Gloria, she was in the house at the time, and when the mage went inside this group of guards that were pursuing him came out of nowhere and surrounded the place. Greenhorns, couldn't have been more than three or four of them.”

“So, the mage starts yelling out of a window. Says they can't touch him, that he's got spells primed, and he'll blast anybody who approaches the house. And then... the guards just left. They backed away, then ran.”

Ward was disgusted, “You're joking.”

“When I saw that the guards weren't going to do anything, that they were cowed by this mage's threats... I couldn't take it. Before I knew what I was doing I'd grabbed my axe and made a mad dash for my house. No spells came, no fireballs, nothing – it must've been a bluff. I break through one of the windows, get to my feet and turn to face the mage... and see that he's got my wife, a knife to her throat.”

“I didn't have any time to react. He aimed one of his palms at me, and there was this tremendous flash of light, and all of my sudden I felt my legs buckling beneath me. And just before I passed out, I saw the mage's knife jerk... and Gloria... she fell limp.”

For a moment, all Ward could do was watch as Ben gazed at the ground. Snapping his head back up, he grumbled, “So, why have we stopped moving?”

“Sorry,” Ward started, as he and Ben continued to walk, “So... What happened next?”

“I woke up a few hours later. The mage had fled, according to the people who brought me around, and my wife... she was gone.”

“So, that's it? Your reason for joining the Ziguranth is revenge?”

Ben gave a hoarse chuckle, “I'd be lying if I said it wasn't, but there's something else too. Seeing how powerless those guards were when a mage threatened them with magic... it's not right. Just knowing somebody could ignore the law so easily... That's why I've joined the Ziguranth, so next time... next time some mage punk tries something like that, thinking he can threaten people with spells to get off scot-free... somebody will be there. Somebody will be there to stop him, to drag him out into the street, CAST HIM TO THE GROUND AND BREAK EVERY BONE IN HIS STINKING, FILTHY BODY!!!

“Starfall and stralite!” Ward exclaimed, visibly flinching. By the end of his proclamation, Ben had been all but screaming, tears in his eyes... as a malignant, hazy aura of gloom pulsed from his body. As Ben shuddered, attempting to master himself, Ward asked timidly, “Ben, friend... Are you okay?”

Gasping for breath, Ben slowly returned to his senses. Finally noticing the astonished look that Ward was giving him, he smiled gravely, “Whatever that mage hit me with... One of the wilders back in Zigur told me that it hasn't left me. That it never will. It's changing me, making me stronger... but I keep having these episodes. They tell me that they're only going to get worse.”

“Gracious...” Ward mumbled. Since the first time he had laid eyes on Ben, he thought there was something unusual about his stance, his physique. It was muscular, true, but also a touch... unnatural. With sick realisation, Ward figured out who it reminded him of: Ce'Nulralle. Would Ben suffer the same fate as her?

“Ben... Are you going to be alright?”

“You patronising me, boy? A spell from some mage whelp isn't about to put away this old warhorse. Hm...” Sniffing the air briefly, Ben added, “Sea breeze. We're getting close. Best get your armour ready, Ward.”

    SANDWORM LAIR 1

“The chambers that make up the sandworm lair are disconnected from one another, Ward. To travel between them, wait for sandworm burrowers to tunnel past you, and follow in their wake.”

Staring up at Ben from the mouth of the lair, Ward called upwards, “Why can't I just make my own tunnel? All I'd need is a sturdy pickaxe, or a shovel maybe...”

Ben shook his head, “The walls are too unstable. You might be able to dig out a hole temporarily, but the sand would crash back down upon you before too long.”

“I see. So, the sandworm burrowers pack the sand tightly enough so it doesn't collapse?”

“Nope, their tunnels collapse too, so you'd best be quick following them.” A grin spread across Ben's weatherworn face, “Good luck, 'brother'. I'll wait out here, keep a lookout... watch the sea, perhaps.”

“Ugh. Right... Suppose I better get used to looking at sandworm backsides for a while...”

    * * *


Traversing the sandy depths of the sandworm lair was a very different experience to Ward's previous dungeon diving. True to what Ben had said, the only way he could move from chamber to chamber was to follow the sandworm burrowers – gigantic tubes of teeth and flesh, ignorant of the world around them as they dutifully dug their way to and fro.

From time to time, Ward would encounter sandworms that did take notice of him – soldiers of their species, he'd assume. Why the smaller, far more fragile and helpless varieties of sandworm were tasked with defending their lair, and the not the near-invincible burrowing behemoths was beyond him. He wasn't going to question it though.

    Level 17! +2 Strength, +1 Constitution, +1 Rush, +1 Aura Of Silence

With a sudden gulp, Ward thought for a moment he had gone deaf, as all sound around him was instantly cut off. Seconds later, the ambient noises of worms burrowing and sand shifting began to return. It seemed, Ward thought, that joining the Ziguranth had effects on him then went beyond the ethical...

    SANDWORM LAIR 2

To the avaricious adventurer, a place like the sandworm lair could be torturous to traverse. Where you went in a place like this wasn't entirely up to you – it was up to the burrowers. All too often Ward saw glimpses of valuables, gems, equipment, passing by for brief seconds before sheets of blinding sand came crashing down, forcing him to continue onwards.

That is not to say that Ward didn't find any loot, though what he did find wasn't particularly good. One chest he came across merely contained a yellow jelly, hopelessly mixed up amongst a selection of armour pieces. While the armour it had absorbed gave the would-be gelatinous cube some extra durability it, like all video game slimes, was easily reduced to a puddle. To his disappointment, Ward found that the armour wasn't even that good.

A second cache Ward found contained a single sword. Like the thought-forged sword Ward had found long before in the Trollmire, it was clear that it once belonged to a Ziguranth warrior. A grim reminder that others like Ward had tried to delve into this lair... and failed.

(The sword also wasn't that good.)

    SANDWORM LAIR 3

Travelling so deeply into a dungeon of such ephemeral design can weigh heavily on the mind, Ward thought to himself. Fortunately he, like many of the Ziguranth, displayed above-average willpower, so he felt that he himself would be okay. But the same couldn't be said of others...

“Such as whoever wrote this...” Ward mumbled to himself, reading by lantern-light the last few tattered scraps of some unfortunate's journal, titled 'Song of the Sands'. Why is it, Ward thought to himself, that out of all the classes wyrmics seem the most... touched? Sure, he himself, like many bulwarks, had a great fondness for well-made armour, but he had never fantasised about being eaten by an oversized gauntlet, or having his own body melted down and forged into a shield.

“I'm sure there's plenty of lucid wyrmics out there,” Ward said to himself, “For example, Aloysius seems fairly sane – well, as far as dragons are concerned, anyway. Cuh, having said that, I half-expect to return to Zigur to find him begging Myssil to let him marry a hatchling he's found.”

“Although... Maybe that's why he was initially against me coming to this lair? Sandworms seem to be tangentially related to dragons, so perhaps he just didn't want me hunting them at all? ... Tch, enough of this. Less pontification, more progression. On the plus side, at least the guy who wrote this song probably got his wish of being munched down like a breadstick.”

    SANDWORM LAIR 4

“Okay, round four. Now to wait for a burrower and—AUGHFDAMMITFIRSTTHEMINOTAURANDNOWYOU?!

The sandworm that had burst through the chamber's wall the second Ward descended was no burrower – it was bigger, nastier, slimier, and altogether more hostile. It was the sandworm queen, and it had brought along most of its royal court by the looks of it. Hefting his shield and baring his axe, Ward stood his ground and prepared for battle.

The positioning for Ward was advantageous, he had that much. The sandworm queen had only dug a hole just wide enough for her own girth, so the majority of her offspring were stuck behind her, impotently gnashing and flailing their bodies back and forth. Some managed to squeeze past her to flank Ward, but not in numbers great enough to overwhelm. But then, just as Ward was beginning to gain ground against the queen, she began to convulse.

Ackfg!” Ward sputtered and fell backwards as an immense geyser of sand burst from the queen's maw, dashing his eye and blinding him. His vision gone, Ward's first instinct was to thrash blindly in the direction he knew the queen was... but the location of his battle gave him pause. He knew for a fact that where he was stood was safe – that is, safe as far as cave-ins were concerned. If he swung at the queen, missed, and instead fell forwards into the tunnel she had created, there was no telling when it would collapse and bury him alive.

So instead, Ward did nothing, concentrating instead of keeping himself shielded and digging the sand out from his eye. This behaviour, in turn, gave the sandworm queen pause – due to her primitive eyesight, she believed for a moment that Ward was dead, given his relative stillness. When Ward's vision finally returned, he took aim at the sandworm queen and delivered one final, crushing assault, scything the head from the queen's bloated body in a shower of bile.

“Ugh.”

    Level 18! Sandworm Heart! +2 Strength, +3 Constitution, +1 Willpower, +2 Rush, +1 Thick Skin, +1 Armour Training

With the sandworm queen dead, her entourage summarily destroyed, her heart cut from her oozing body, and the majority of her bile wrung out from Ward's cloak and hair, Ward took a moment to rest and gather his senses. Nobody ever said being a member of the Ziguranth was glamorous.

“So, now I have to eat this thing?”

Ward held up the melon-sized sandworm heart, careful not to get any of its leaking humours on his boots. He wasn't relishing this, not one bit, but hey: If he could stomach the 'bowel blastin' bathtub beer' he had made once in his makeshift still back in Derth, he could certainly eat a heart. In fact, the memories of some of the concoctions his brewery had come up with almost made it seem appetising...

“Well, down the hatch...”

    WILDERNESS

“Blegh,” Ward emerged from the sandworm lair back into the light of day, smacking his lips together with distaste, “Of all the things that sandworm heart could've been, I was not expecting it to be fizzy. Still... Ben? Ben! You ready to go?” Ward cast his gaze around, “Ben? Where are you, I—WHOA!

A distance from the sandworm lair's entrance, Ben stood, back hunched, his axe visibly trembling in his grip. At his feet, four people lay dead – two men, two women.

Ward hurried to Ben's side, whose gaze did not stray from the corpses he stood over. “Ben! What on Eyal have you done?!” Ward exclaimed.

“They... For a moment... T-They were mages! I... No... That's not it... They...” Still panting heavily, Ben stumbled over his own words for a moment before blurting out, “I don't know! I-I-I think maybe they had knives... They were hiding!”

“Hiding? Hiding where?!”

“I... I don't know!” Ben shouted, distressed.

Kneeling down to examine the four bodies, Ward briefly searched through their belongings – no knives. “They're not mages,” Ward muttered, “They're not even fighters. They look like civilians... No weapons, no armour... Just provisions and travel gear.” Looking up towards Ben, Ward said, “Your curse... You had an episode, didn't you?”

Ben was silent. His eyes darted to each of the four people he had killed in turn. “No... Nobody must find out about this. If anyone does... Ward, you'll help me? Please!”

After a moment's thought, Ward nodded, “Okay, look. W-We'll bury them here, okay? Not a word of this when we get back to Zigur, right?”

“Right... Right.”

    ZIGUR

“Brother Ward! I take it your mission was a resounding success!”

“You bet,” Ward nodded, “Got a belly full of heart and a head full of nature.”

Fearne frowned, “You mean you ate the heart, just like that? And you're fine?!”

“Of course. Why wouldn't I be?”

Bastard!

Turning on her heel, Fearne stamped away. Watching her, Aloysius explained with a smile, “Some time ago, Fearne ate a sandworm queen heart as well. It did not agree with her. Spent the best part of a week vomiting in some truly extraordinary colours and volumes... Still.”

Turning to Ben, who was stood a distance behind Ward, Aloysius beamed, “Brother Cruthdar! By the crimson hue of your trusty axe, I take it you delivered swift justice to some unfortunate arcanists on your jaunt? Come, tell me how you...”

Aloysius trailed off as, without a word, Ben pushed him aside and slunk away into Zigur proper. Aloysius cast his gaze back to Ward who, reaching for an explanation, offered, “I-It was quite a close call, the mages that Ben fought. They almost had him at one point.”

“Ah, I see. I suppose that after such an ordeal one would want solitude. Anyway...” Aloysius slapped his hands together, “I have some good news, Ward! You and I have been given a mission by our great Protector! Surely you want to test the new abilities your recent 'hearty' meal has given you? Hah!”

“A mission from Myssil? Has she discovered the culprit behind the storm over Derth?”

“As of now? No, sadly. But be of good cheer, Ward! Nature's work must be carried out! We venture for the Daikara!”

“The Daikara?” Said Ward, surprised, “The mountain chain? Why are we going there?”

“I will explain in due time our goal, Ward, but for now? Ready your blade! Don your warmest cloak! Prepare your movement infusion! We shall sally forth towards—”

“What's a movement infusion?”

In an instant, Aloysius' proclamation came to a screeching halt. “You... don't know what a movement infusion is, brother?”

“Never heard of one.”

“You've... never seen them for sale? Had one drop from a fallen foe?”

“Nope. Are they important?”

Turning Ward on the spot, towards the torque and totem store, Aloysius brusquely said, “Ward. Go to that shop, buy a psychoportation torque, and thank your lucky stars that you still live. Hurry now, the Daikara awaits!”


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PostPosted: Mon May 20, 2013 12:41 am 
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Master of Eyal

Joined: Wed Jul 24, 2002 9:26 pm
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moar moar !

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PostPosted: Mon May 20, 2013 2:13 pm 
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Uruivellas

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 10, 2013 12:16 am 
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Spiderkin

Joined: Mon Jul 26, 2004 5:20 am
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    DAIKARA 1

“... Stupid titting freezing ice-coated tosspot of a mountain...” Ward shivered bitterly.

“I don't know about you brother, but I find it bracing! I did tell you to wear garments with some modicum of cold resistance...”

“I am wearing cold resistance gear. What I am not wearing is cold enjoyment gear. I suppose you like the cold because its one of the elements that dragons are attuned to, correct?”

“Well...” Aloysius said hesitantly, “There may be some truth to that...”

“Thought so,” Ward sniffed, “You'd enjoy dysentery if drakes breathed it.”

Watching as Ward trudged ahead of him in the ankle-deep slush, muttering angry nothings under his breath, Aloysius commented, “I take it that experiencing the bitter cold can turn one's attitude cold and bitter, brother, but please try to focus. Our task here is important, so we cannot allow ourselves to become...” Slowly, Aloysius noticed that there was a ragged halfling stood beside him, shivering and frost-bitten, feebly tugging at the lining of his armour, “... distracted?”


“Please, sirrah... Help me...”

“Ward! Ward!” Aloysius called, “Cease your advance, brother!”

    * * *

“I cannot thank you enough for your kindness, sirs. I am Unranarileg, pleased to make your acquaintance. What should I call my heroes?”

“Aloysius, and please, it is no act of heroism.” Bowing low, Aloysius beamed, “It is simple nature to watch out for your fellow man.”

“Ward.” Stood with his arms folded, his cloak now wrapped about the halfling for warmth, Ward gave silent thanks to the armoursmith back in Last Hope for giving his armour extra padding, “Why is one such as yourself traversing this snowy peak on his lonesome?”

Shaking his head mournfully, Unranarileg sighed, “Greed. Simple greed. Almost enough to put one in their grave, I now recognise. The group I belong to received news recently that the Daikara was rich with precious gems, even upon its surface, so in my haste I arranged to trek here, solo... and this is where it got me. Had you not arrived sooner...”

“Hey, don't worry about it. We all bite off more than we can chew sometimes,” Ward gazed up the mountain path, winding its way upwards, “Do you have a recall portal nearby we can take you to?”

“Yes... Yes, I do. It's some way though, and...” Unranarileg paused, “... There is something blocking our passage to it.”

“Something?” Aloysius enquired, “What manner of 'something'?”

“... Something. I have never seen such a creature before... I would almost call it arachnid, but to consider it a mere, mundane giant spider would be grossly inaccurate... Hold,” Unranarileg noticed that Ward was now walking away, loosening the waraxe from his belt, “Where are you going?”

“Where do you think I'm going? To go and do something about your 'something', of course.”

“What?! You mustn't! I repeat again, it is no simple giant spider! It will...”

But Ward was already out of sight. Turning his worried visage back to Aloysius, the wyrmic smiled, “Do not fret overmuch. Bulwarks consider themselves living shields. If anyone can protect you from this 'something', it is my erstwhile brother-in-arms.”

The halfling relented, but still appeared to be quite unsettled. Noticing this, Aloysius decided to broach a different avenue of conversation, “So... Your journey here; gems were your quarry?”

“That they were,” Unranarileg nodded, “Must make me appear terribly avaricious, eh? Venturing up this void-forsaken peak just for shiny stones...”

Aloysius waved his hands, “Not at all, friend. It is a mission far more noble than the one usually undertaken by travellers here...”

“I assume you refer to dragon poaching? Yes, I noticed that you were a... Ah, what's the word? Wyrm-man?”

“Wyrmic.”

“Yes, wyrmic. Still, as I was saying, it was gems that I sought for, not dragonhide. My concoctions have been demanding more and more of them lately, and if I'm ever to advance in the Brotherhood...”

Aloysius' smile flickered, “... You're an alchemist.”

“Oh, yes,” Unranarileg replied genially, “Didn't I mention? I thought my regrettable gem-lust would've given me away! Hah, quite a coincidence – alchemists covet hoards of gemstones almost as much as dragons do! We could almost be kindred spirits, eh?”

“Yes, yes...” Nodded Aloysius, surreptitiously pulling a pouch of grey dust from his belt, “Kindred spirits...”

    * * *

Hah! Whoa! Just one more...!”

Ward aimed carefully and with one last, perfect strike, scored a lethal hit upon the immense arachnid form that darted towards him. Leaping out of the way of the beast's final charge, Ward watched with fascination as the eight-legged creature crashed against the rock, shuddered for a brief moment, and then... vanished. Ward stared at the patch of ground where his opponent had simply blinked out of existence, disbelieving.

“No way. It couldn't have been...”

    * * *

“It was a weaver!”

“A... weaver?” Aloysius furrowed his brow.

“I must agree, I have never heard of such a creature,” Unranarileg added, “Yet it appears that you have. Where does your experience come from?”

“Robin. Ah, that is, the notes a friend of mine wrote, regarding chronomancy.”

“Chronomancy...”

“From what I understand,” Ward began, “Time is like... threads of silk, okay? Don't ask me how a concept such as time can be manifested in such a manner, but it's threads. And weavers are, like, the spiders that weave these threads, maintain them and so on. No wonder the thing looked so alien to you; it technically shouldn't even be in this plane of existence!”

“Amazing,” Unranarileg breathed, “To think you could learn such things from the notes of this friend of yours. Surely he must have been a mighty mage!”

Ward glared at Unranarileg for a moment, before stating, “He is a very smart man, I will say that. Nobody can take that from him. Nobody.”

Scratching the back of his neck awkwardly, Unranarileg coughed, “Well, no, I guess not... Still! If you've dealt with this weaver, then there should be naught blocking my path to my recall portal. Once again, I cannot thank the pair of you enough for helping me.”

“Think nothing of it, friend.” Ward thumbed over his shoulder, “Shall we be off?”

    * * *

“Ah! Here it is.”

The mountainous path that the trio traversed had made its way upwards to a small, rocky plateau, the earth around Unranarileg's recall portal glowing a gentle shade of purple. Upon seeing the portal, the halfling himself gave a cry of relief and jogged ahead of Ward and Aloysius to ensure that it was still complete and functional.

“Mmhm, mmhm... All runes and sigils present and correct! Excellent!” Jumping into the centre of the glyph, Unranarileg laughed, “To think, moments hence I thought it was all over!”

“Fortune's smiled upon you this day,” Aloysius grinned, “So, back to the halls of Angolwen for you, friend?”

Upon hearing the 'a-word', Ward glanced upwards, “Hey, wait, what—”

“That's right!” Unranarileg nodded, “To home and hearth at last! Who cares if my quest for gems came up empty-handed? All I desire now is a cosy chair, a roaring fire, and maybe a slice of shortbread or two!”

“Sounds delightful,” Reaching one arm behind his back, Aloysius slowly poured a measure of grey dust into his fist, “If it's Angolwen you're headed to, could you perhaps deliver a message for me?”

Ward's eye darted to the dust in Aloysius' hand, “Hey, hang on! Don't—”

“Of course! What is it?”

“Just this: First Protector Ardon sends his regards.

Wait!

As Aloysius dashed his dust at Unranarileg's portal, Ward only saw the alchemist for a split-second before he vanished, but it was long enough to witness the emotion that flooded across his face – terror.

    Unranarileg Betrayed! +2 Willpower

“Aloysius!” Grabbing the smirking wyrmic by his multi-hued lapels, Ward exclaimed, “Why did you do that?! We just saved that guy from freezing to death up here, only for you to backstab him the moment he enters his portal?! What were you thinking?!”

Despite the smile that remained constant on his face, Aloysius' eyes had grown hard and steely. “In case you've forgotten, brother, you and I are members of a little movement known as the Ziguranth. Remember Zigur? Your initiation? Our sworn duty to protect the world from the whims of the insane mage bourgeoisie? Forgive me if I'm patronising you, but it looks as though it's slipped your mind.”

Releasing his grip on Aloysius, Ward paced backwards a few steps. It was true, he was Ziguranth, and what Aloysius had just done was expected of them. And yet, despite how prepared Ward had believed himself to be to join the order, it looked as though his conscience and his morals weren't as hardened as he had expected them to be.

“It's just... Something wasn't right,” Ward wrung his hands, “Sure, he was a mage. But... Couldn't you have just struck him down the moment you realised it, instead of getting his hopes up, escorting him to his portal?”

“There's an element of danger to such an action, Ward,” Aloysius folded his arms, “We may have developed such that we can resist the brunt of magic's might, but there's always the possibility that one can underestimate a mage – bite off more than you can chew, as it were. Dusting portals is a far safer course of action.”

Seeing no immediate response from Ward, who continued to look unsettled, Aloysius sighed, “I have seen the same reaction from many a new initiate in my time, Ward. Their initial experience with mages has always been the... insane corruptor, the malevolent necromancer, figures for whom even the most rudimentary of moral compasses point towards 'oh, void naw'. But then you have archmages, alchemists and their ilk. Folk whose transgressions aren't so obvious. Realising the peril that these people embody – far greater peril than that of corruptors or necromancers, I should add – is a test for new blood within the Ziguranth... A test that not all complete.”

“... I have to 'realise the peril' of mages?”

“The Spellblaze was such a long time ago, wasn't it? Even the most grievous of wounds can heal; someday, the Spellblaze's mark on the world may vanish entirely. How much longer can the Ziguranth strive for revenge? Fifty years? A hundred years? You see, the reason for our zeal is that, despite the cataclysmic destruction that the Spellblaze caused, and the sheer irresponsibility of the mages that allowed it to happen... the arcanists' approach to magic has not changed. Not. One. Iota.”

Ward went to speak, but Aloysius wasn't about to be interrupted. Now striding to and fro, he continued, “Knowledge. That's the excuse that mages use for their actions. We must learn about magic! We must study it! It's knowledge, don't question it! Knowledge! However, one must ask: What is it exactly that mages study about magic? It's reason for being? Why they possess it? How to make it safer? More accessible, perhaps? A way of bestowing magical abilities upon those without them is surely not outside the realm of possibility?”

“No. When mages say they 'study' magic, they mean one thing... Power! Power! Power! More power! How much more powerful can we make it?! How much more powerful can I make MYSELF? Me, me, me, power, power, power! More power! More power! Over a mountain of corpses! Who cares how many die?! Power! POWER! POWER! Fire and blood, the ruler of the mages even snorted up a god simply because she wasn't satisfied with her previous strength!”

“... Gotta admit, that's pretty... extreme.” Ward mumbled quietly.

Much to Ward's relief, Aloysius finally began to calm down. “It's funny,” He snickered, “We Ziguranth are called a cult, when it's the mages who worship a dead god. I notice I've unnerved you a touch, brother. It wasn't my intention.”

“N-No, no, it's okay,” Ward shrugged, “The way you started raving then, i-it... it was comforting. Really. Got any more proselytising you want to get out of your system?”

Chuckling, Aloysius gave a sarcastic bow, “All done for the moment, brother. Shall we be off?”

    DAIKARA 2

“So, ah, at the risk of triggering another explosive bout of speech-giving,” Ward said, arms behind his head as he and Aloysius continued their progression along the Daikara, “Could you tell me what it is we're doing up this mountain? You said you'd explain 'in due time'.”

“Ah, that, yes. No.”

“... Hrm.”

“Come now, don't pout,” Aloysius sniggered, “You found that, ah, dwarven-steel thought-forged longsword of purging on that weaver creature, didn't you? Doesn't that already make this jaunt worth it?”

“It's not the journey being worth it or not that bothers me,” Ward replied, idly swinging his new sword – it was spiffy, he wasn't going to lie, “I just don't like secrets. What if you're taking me up here as a sacrifice, to power your nature gifts, or something like that?”

“Hah! Come now, Ward...”

“Tell me why we're here.”

Glancing around, Aloysius suddenly pointed at a dark passage, carved into the mountainside, caught his eye, “Ah, look there, Ward! An intimidating cave! Perhaps we should—”

“Forget the cave,” Ward waved a hand, “Tell me why we're here.”

“... Hmhm. Tell you what. I'll tell you why we're up here... if you tell me about your parents.” Amused by the indignant glare that surfaced on Ward's face, Aloysius laughed, “A little trick Myssil taught me the other day, to get you to stop pursuing secrets. You really don't like talking about your childhood, do you?”

“Leave it, Aloysius,” Ward said lowly, “I'm serious. Leave it.”

“Mage killed your family, right? That's what everybody back in Zigur guesses.”

“No. Leave it.”

“No? Now I'm intrigued,” Rubbing his chin, Aloysius thought to himself, “Come to think of it... Ward's your family name, right? It rings a bell.”

“You aren't leaving it. I suggest you leave it.”

“Doesn't that name belong to some big, affluent merchant family, down in Last Hope? Yet, you said you're from Derth...”

“You have no idea how close you are to getting a shield in the face, Aloysius. Last time: Leave it.”

Finally relenting, Aloysius whistled, “Alright brother, you've made your point. Save that rage for those who deserve it, right? Let's change the subject; what do you want to talk about?”

Ward gave a non-committal shrug.

“We could talk about... art? The weather? Day-to-day life, perhaps—SNOW GIANTS!

“Snow giants?” Ward was confused, “Why would you want to talk about snow giants? Aren't they just a pack of oversized, club-wielding, blue-skinned, loosely-confederated troglodytes?”

Staring at the warband of towering, frost-rimed and freshly insulted snow giants that loomed behind Ward's back, Aloysius mumbled under his breath, making a small 'turn around' gesture with his index finger, “Ah, brother? I think a little pirouette might be in order here...”

“Pardon? We're up a mountain and you want me to start... Oh.”

Finally noticing the cantankerous group stood behind him, Ward instinctively reached for his sword and shield even as he laughed, “Ah... Haha. When I said 'troglodytes', I meant it in an ironic... social commentary... non-offensive way...”

    * * *

Ten minutes, and several dozen dead snow giants later...

“Cold resistance gear, you said to bring!” Ward stammered, still jolting and juddering from the lightning bolts the snow giant thunderers had peppered him with, “You said nothing about lightning resistance gear!”

“Well...” Having hidden behind a rock and not contributed to the battle (due to not being an actual in-game character), Aloysius reached for something positive about Ward's recent lightning-rod impression, “... I suppose you don't feel cold any more, right brother?”

“Yes, I suppose. Having all your internal organs fried until they're golden brown would heat you up a little. Still, I'd rather that it didn't happen again!” Shuddering, Ward shook off the last of the thunderers' sparks, “Suppose I should look on the bright side. At least the snow giants' champion wasn't among them; I'm not sure we would've survived then.”

“Indeed,” Aloysius nodded, “Our hopes of surviving against a foe as mighty, ingenious and good-looking as the snow giants' champion would be slim to none...”

Now continuing their ascent in silence, Aloysius silently considered the ramifications of the thunderers' presence. Snow giants don't wield lightning magic 'just because'; something – or someone – was influencing them...

This, after all, was the reason why Myssil had tasked himself and Ward with scaling the Daikara; to search for the storm mage who had assaulted Derth. Myssil had bade Aloysius that Ward was not to be made aware of the purpose of their expedition – if Ward did know, it would distract him during combat. Not to mention the fact that, if they did locate the culprit, Ward would most likely attempt an attack immediately, despite how foolhardy such an action would be.

No, much better to keep him in the dark at present. Aloysius was the eyes, after all – Ward was merely the sword and shield.

    DAIKARA 3

“Hold on, haven't we walked up this pass already?”

“You know what,” Said Aloysius, turning to gaze at the mountain path behind him, “I think we have...”

“This isn't just déj? vu, no way. We've definitely been here before. But how is that possible? ... This is odd.”

“Agreed, brother. We've been here before, and yet...” Scrunching up his face, Aloysius spoke with obvious confusion, “I also know that we'll walk here again... in the future?”

“Funny. I was about to ask how you'd know that, but... I know it as well. We've walked here before, we're walking here now, and we'll walk here... in the future...” Slowing to a standstill, Ward thought for a moment on what he had just said. In an instant, his eye shone with realisation.

“Oh, lawd. There's a temporal rift nearby.”

“A temporal... rift?” Aloysius said curiously.

“That explains the weaver I found, not to mention the déj? vu and precognition we're experiencing. Time's been ripped a new one, and the wound is very close by... Should be just up ahead.”

“How on Eyal do you know that?”

“Easy,” Ward shrugged, “I remember seeing it... even though I haven't... yet.”

True enough, a mere dozen yards up the mountain path, Ward and Aloysius came across the culprit behind their prescience – a rift, a burning hole that hung in the air itself, countless images of countless eras (thankfully) lost in its inky blackness.

Aloysius and Ward stared at the impossible fracture in reality for a moment or two.

“So... Do we just leave it?” Aloysius eventually shrugged, “I mean, this isn't like finding litter somebody's dropped and leaving it. It strikes me as fairly major, brother.”

Arms folded and with a finger held to his chin, Ward hummed, “Irresponsible as it is... I think it'd be best if we left it be. Corporeal bodies aren't suited for travel in the temporal domain – if we encountered any resistance, it'd be a challenge retaliating while we're moving as slow as molasses. Plus, actually repairing the rift would most likely involve colluding with chronomancers. Seeing as we're Ziguranth, I can see a good dozen ways how that could go south. No, we should leave it for now; maybe come back better prepared. Who knows? Maybe, now that I've slain a weaver here, a greater group from their brood will come to investigate and repair the damage themselves. Who can say?”

Aloysius, who had listened to Ward's speech with quiet surprise, took a moment to respond. When he did, his tone was tinged with suspicion, “You know, between this rift and that weaver, you know an awful lot about chronomancy. You're sure this all comes from browsing through your mage-loving friend's notes?”

“Eh. Out of everything there, it's what interested me the most. Chronomancy used to worry me more than anything – it's a threat you just... can't respond to normally, y'know? Looking through Robin's notes put my fears to rest for the most part.”

“Oh? How so?”

“Look at it this way,” Ward smiled, “If a paradox mage could kill you by, say, going to the past and killing you as a baby, or maybe 'sever your thread' or something like that, it would've happened already. It hasn't, so...”

“Hmm. I see...” Mollified for the moment, Aloysius nodded towards the mountain path, and both he and Ward continued their ascent. “Incidentally, brother,” He continued, “What is your opinion on chronomancers? Do you believe them to be as reprehensible as their mundane mage muchachos?”

“I won't comment on it. ... Although anybody who gives themself the title 'Grand Keeper of Reality' probably should be regarded with some healthy level of trepidation... Maybe we should give ourselves titles.”

    DAIKARA 4

“Ah! It looks like we're finally approaching the top of the mountain! After you Aloysius, Benevolent God-King of the Outer Reaches!”

“Why, thank you Ward, Great and Glorious Iron Emperor of—what on Eyal is that?!

Stood upon the path before them – indeed, entirely filling the path before them – a bloated horror gurgled and pulsed. As horrific as it was bloated, the pasty ball of vaguely-humanoid blubber was inhuman enough to cause revulsion, but just human enough to unsettle...

“Is that... a horror?” Aloysius breathed, “I've never seen a horror so... corpulent.”

“Goodness. Now, I've seen some fat people, and I mean really fat, circus-grade fat – there was this one noblewoman I saw in Last Hope that had to be pulled around on a cart – but this thing?!” Ward shook his head, “I wasn't aware that the nightmarish beings that inhabit the hell-realms between dimensions had to cope with cholesterol, of all things.”

“Indeed. I wonder if it's meant to be, ah... a representation of man's greed, or something. A damning indictment of how humanity exists merely to consume, or something like that.”

“Ugh. Wouldn't surprise me,” Readying his weapons, Ward strode towards the horror. The horror, for its part, continued to passively jiggle and squelch. Confused, Ward wondered to himself, “Is this thing even capable of fighting? Has it even noticed us? I would've expected it to do something by—”

And then, the bloated horror began a devastating mental assault, searing Ward's mind.

OW OW OKAY IT CAN FIGHT OW CRAP DAMMIT

* * * SCHLAK * * *
* * * CHOP * * *
* * * CHOP * * *
* * * SQUELCH * * *
* * * CHOP * * *
* * * SQUISH * * *


Having frantically diced the bloated horror to pieces, halting the mental assault, Ward paused to rub his head tenderly.

“Ugh, psionics,” He groaned, “Can't stand it. That thing put images in my head I just couldn't deal with, and I've read 'Scaled Majesty'!”

“Hmph,” Aloysius folded his arms, mildly offended, “Scaled Majesty is a deep and thought-provoking thesis into the complex relationship between wyrmics and dragons, brother. It's not our fault that the world at large sees it as nothing more than shallow, disturbing, inter-species erotica.”

“Spare me,” Sighed Ward, idly scooping up the bloated horror's diseased heart (in case he ran into Agrimley again), “By the time I finished chapter three I already felt like I needed a wash.”

Any rebuttal that Aloysius would have wanted to give was cut short by a sound both chilling and, judging by its volume, from a source that was far too close for comfort: The roar of a great wyrm.

“Curses,” Muttered Aloysius as he and Ward beheld the oversized reptilian form that rose up from the dense icy mist before them, “I could've sworn that Rantha hibernated around this time of the year.”

“Looks like it's us or her,” Said Wardy as he readied his sword and shield, “You've got no objections to dragonslaying in self-defence, right? Mr. Wyrmic?”

“Oh, of course I haven't,” Snapped Aloysius testily, backpeddling away from the impending battle as he spoke, “Just... do what you have to.”

“Hell, I couldn't treat this dragon any worse than what happened to that one in chapter five, anyway!”

Just start fighting it already!

    * * *

    Level 19! +1 Strength, +2 Willpower, +1 Spell Shield, +1 Combat Accuracy

To Ward's chagrin, his battle against Rantha echoed his clash with Wrathroot – a war of attrition, albeit a slightly more hazardous one. Having expended the entirety of his combat repertoire, not to mention his stamina, the battle was soon reduced to a desperate, artless struggle, Ward haphazardly striking at the great wyrm whenever an opportunity presented itself, hoping that his blows were strong enough to penetrate Rantha's scales.

Still, Ward comforted himself with the thought that the battle must have been frustrating for Rantha as well; not once was he frozen by her blasts of icy breath, and his heavy armour greatly mitigated her rending claw-strikes. Once again, he had proven to be a nut too tough to crack.

“Found a couple of interesting items in Rantha's hoard,” Ward called to Aloysius as he returned from rooting through the dragon's assorted collection of valuables, “There was a nasty ol' arcane 'Burning Star', which I'm sure you'll be thrilled to hear is now transmogged, and also this pair of shoes. 'Frost Treads', the scryer called 'em. They're quite nice, think I'll use 'em... Although, I think I'll want to invest in some thicker socks... Aloysius?”

Having noticed that Aloysius was stood a distance away, gazing blankly at Rantha's corpse, Ward came to his side and said, “Look. I know it's a shame, but I had to kill Rantha. No way around it. I know I poke fun at you wyrmics every now and then, but deep down I do respect your—what?!”

To Ward's surprise, Aloysius had knelt down and, drawing a large knife, begun to hack around the inside of Rantha's jaws, mumbling to himself, “I hope the breath glands are still intact...”

“Aloysius?! What're you doing?!”

Glancing back at Ward for a moment, Aloysius responded idly, “The glands inside a dragon's mouth are what allow it to breath fire, ice, acid and so on. A steady diet of such glands is necessary for a wyrmic to develop draconic powers, don't you know...”

“But... But I thought Wyrmic's didn't like it when you kill—”

“Waste not, want not, brother! Mmm, Rantha had some good, strong hide... Think you could give me a hand slicing it off?”

    ZIGUR

Myssil was an embattled woman.

For the longest time, she had possessed a feeling. At first, the feeling wasn't strong enough to merit any serious reflection. As it grew, she attempted to dismiss it out-of-hand as being irrational, or 'un-Ziguranth'. But still, the feeling persisted. The current state of the Ziguranth – hunting mages, attacking exposed pockets of corruptors, spreading antimagic sentiment amongst the general populace... It was nothing more than a holding pattern, a holding pattern that was not benefiting the Ziguranth. At this rate, magic would remain and the Ziguranth's primary goal would go unfulfilled. No, thought Myssil, something greater will have to happen if Ardon's dream was ever going to be realised... something grand, sweeping, decisive. She comforted herself by working on her plans every night – possible scenarios that would result in an end to all magic, or at least something that would cripple mage society as a whole. Yet, as it stood now, none of her plans could be put into action.

Sadly for Myssil, many of the Ziguranth took her introversion and disinterest in the day-to-day affairs of Zigur as inactivity, indolence. Her more vocal critics had claimed that under her leadership, the Ziguranth was stagnating and not 'fulfilling its true destiny'. In truth, Myssil was never even meant to be Zigur's ruler – she had become Protector as a 'battlefield promotion', taking command during a corruptor raid after the previous Protector had fallen in battle. Thanks to her masterful display of tactics during the raid, not to mention her ferocity in combat, she kept the rank of Protector even after the attack had concluded. Up until said raid, the Ziguranth member thought to be a shoo-in as the next Protector was... Aloysius.

Charismatic, bold and idealistic, it was no surprise that Aloysius was so beloved by his Ziguranth brethren. Deep down, it concerned Myssil that so many viewed the wyrmic with such esteem – with each passing day, the whisperings that Aloysius was the true leader of the Ziguranth grew. She could only hope that it wouldn't develop into a full-fledged mutiny. Aloysius himself, for his part, remained silent on the subject, and on the face of things he remained loyal to Myssil and her rule. Still, she thought anxiously, it was certainly within the scope of his abilities to hide his desire for rulership over Zigur...

And then... there was Linaniil.

Unlike the corruptors, archmages did not oppose the Ziguranth openly – socially, they could not. If Angolwen were to move to destroy Zigur, it would turn the Ziguranth into an entire legion of martyrs. The public would see it as the ever-aloof mages, with their delusions of godhood, striking down the fools that dared to oppose them... As far as becoming accepted by the common man went, it wouldn't be a prudent choice for them. Corruptors, obviously, didn't care about such things as 'acceptance', hence their comparatively overt assaults.

But this did not stop the mages from attempting to destabilise the Ziguranth subversively, and that's where Linaniil comes in. For a period of many months, the one surviving Kar'Krul would cast spells to torment Myssil whenever she was alone: Whisperings, apparitions, repeated assertions that she and her order would fail... For a time sleep became an alien habit to Myssil, with shades and projections of Linaniil keeping her awake night after night after night. Myssil became drawn, fatigued, incapable of leadership or even coherency at the worst of times. Eventually, the Ziguranth's psions devised a method to mask Myssil's consciousness, saving her from Linaniil's mental assaults. Yet despite the time that had passed, Myssil felt that she had lost something permanently. Her energy, her conviction, her passion... Perhaps she was just getting older.

“Protector Myssil? You slumber not?”

Coming out of her reverie, Myssil sat up in her chair and turned to see Padakkk, a yeek psion, pad into the room.

Padakkk – and indeed, all of the yeeks within the order – had been a blessing, improving the strength, numbers and capability of the Ziguranth's psions immensely. Yeeks as a race were naturally given to psionics; their mere presence could engender development of psionic abilities upon those of other races with adequate potential. Each of them, to a yeek, gave no reason for their joining of the Ziguranth, each claiming simply that 'their drives are their own'. Normally Myssil would've been sceptical of allowing such a secretive people into the Ziguranth, but she knew that the power that yeek psionics gave her order was not something to be squandered.

“No Padakkk, I'm awake. What is it?”

The yeek's white fur bristled, “The information psioncally harvested from your scouts in the Daikara has focused our mental search to a single point. Atop a peak, shrouded in stormclouds, a human who wields lightning...”

Now wide awake, Myssil grabbed a scrap of parchment and raised her quill, “You know who's causing the storm over Derth? Tell me.”

Padakkk's bulbous, dilated eyes began to darken as his 'inner eye' focused, “A man... grey and twisted... nothing but scorn... Urkis... of Angolwen...”

Myssil inhaled sharply – she hadn't been expecting this. “Angolwen? You're sure?!”

“From the city of spires and contention of the Way... It is clear that Urkis carries their mark.”

“Padakkk, the mountain Urkis resides on – you can sense where it's located, right?”

“I can...”

Getting to her feet, Myssil ushered the yeek into her chair, showing him her parchment and quill. “Sketch a map of where he is before your vision fades, Padakkk,” She instructed, “I've got an urgent matter to attend to.”

With quick, sporadic movements, his eyes not upon the parchment, Padakkk dutifully began to scratch out a map. As Myssil paced towards her chamber's door, pulling a cloak about her neck, he commented, “No action may be taken against the man Urkis until you know his location, no? What are you doing?”

“Never you mind, Padakkk,” Myssil muttered, opening the door, “There's someone I need to speak with.”

    * * *

Emerging from the dense underbrush, Myssil entered a small, moonlit clearing some distance from Zigur's borders. While her months of harassment from Linaniil's apparitions had taken much from her, it had also given her something: Now, Linaniil could only sense Myssil's mind if Myssil herself wished it. So, when Myssil had something to say...

“Quekorja! Quekorja!” Myssil shouted at thin air, “Quekorja! Reveal yourself!”

Within seconds, a pearlescent ball of blue light welled up from the ground before Myssil's feet. The ball distorted, stretching in multiple directions, its light fading and growing stronger at different points. It's form became more and more humanoid, until eventually...

Image

“How many times must I tell you, Myssil? I am Linaniil.”

“I speak to you, Quekorja,” Myssil poked a finger upwards, “Not the corpse of the woman you inhabit.”

Linaniil's image folded her arms, “Thou hast called me simply to harangue me?”

“Urkis,” Myssil spat, “Surely you have knowledge of his actions, his assault on Derth? Or were your eyes too affixed upon your plans of conquest to notice?!”

“Urkis...” Linaniil sighed wearily, “Too late do I realise he has become a liability. Time and again he would come to me, demanding greater liberties to facilitate his 'experiments' – the spark of madness within his eyes whenever I refused him...”

“So your dog slipped his leash, and only now do you react,” Said Myssil, tartly, “What must his tempest strike to make you take action? Angolwen? Your own bedchamber? You?

“You will not take that tone with me, Ziguranth,” Linaniil snapped, eyes narrowing while the remainder of her expression remained passive, “Hast thou not blanketed Maj'Eyal with your seething, unjustified hatred perhaps our number could 'take action', as you so eloquently put it.”

“Your self-righteousness knows no bounds, Quekorja! One of your charges torments an entire community with his thunderstorms, storms that birthed his own insanity, and yet we are the ones accused of 'seething, unjustified hatred'?!” Linaniil began to speak, but Myssil continued unabashed, “Well, fine! Sit in your grove! Wallow in your auras! In the meantime we, the evil, twisted Ziguranth will be directing some entirely justified hatred at a certain storm mage, and in the process of doing so save hundreds!”

Pausing for a moment after Myssil's outburst, Linaniil smiled, “I do so enjoy our discussions, my dear Myssil. Listening to the views of one so unfettered by any cultural, ethical... or intellectual... trappings can be quite refreshing. Will that be all, then?”

Her temper piqued by Linaniil's flippancy, Myssil began to snarl... before a eerie smile surfaced on her face.

“Well, there is one other thing you may want to know, Quekorja,” Myssil paused for effect, “... I have almost found it, you know.”

“... It?”

“You know what I'm talking about. It.

Linaniil was bemused, “... I honestly don't.”

“You know. My search is almost at an end. Within months, weeks, days even... Hasta Exoculo will be within my grasp.”

Upon hearing the phrase 'Hasta Exoculo' escape Myssil's lips, Linaniil rolled her eyes and turned away, “Hasta Exoculo,” She sighed exasperatedly, “Honestly? Madness hast truly taken you, Ziguranth.”

But Myssil was undeterred, taking Linaniil's disparaging response as an attempt to hide fear. “Hmhm, yes,” She chuckled, “T'would be an honour, you know. To be the Protector to finally do away with the Ghost of the Kar'Krul. Remember, Ardon's spirit predates you, and so shall it endure after you have passed. Until then, Quekorja...”

Without a word, Linaniil's projection slapped a palm to its face, then slowly flickered out of existence. Myssil continued to smile to herself after it had vanished; mayhap she had shown her hand too early, mentioning Hasta Exoculo to Linaniil... but, Myssil told herself, what possible counter could 'Quekorja' possibly muster?

“Protector! Protector!”

Whirling on the spot, Myssil was surprised to see Padakkk stumbling through the undergrowth surrounding the clearing she stood in. “What is the meaning of this?!” She shouted, “Padakkk, were you eavesdropping?!”

The young yeek psion shook his head, heaving as he attempted to catch his breath. It was clear he had ran some way. “Pr... Protector! An attack! An attack within Zigur!”

“What?! Is it corruptors?!”

Padakkk shook his head, “No! Of all the minds within Zigur, one suddenly twisted! Roaring in pain! Filled with knives and gloom!”

Myssil strode past Padakkk, back in the direction of Zigur. It would be quicker to witness the attack for herself than to interpret Padakkk's speech.

    * * *

Ward and Aloysius had only just made it back to Zigur when Ben had snapped.

“Grrgh! You've finally lost it, old man...!”

Let me go! I saw him! He was a mage! He had her! He had her!

The tableau presented to Ward as he approached Zigur's centre was quite gruesome. An unfortunate young summoner had been introduced to Ben's axe following the start of his new 'episode' – a remarkable amount of blood surrounded where the summoner had fell, more than Ward thought a human body could contain. A pair of anxious-looking Ziguranth were tenderly lifting the summoner's body onto a crude leather stretcher; even if they could save him, he would likely be more fungus than man by the end of his treatment.

And there was Ben, eyes unfocused and bloodshot, screaming incomprehensibly as he grappled with Fearne, who was doing her best to restrain the cursed lumberjack.

They won't take her! I see them! All of them! I'll stop it! I'll end it all!

“That's it,” Fearne brought her head back, teeth bared, “Say goodnight, you psychopath!”

* * * CRACK! * * *

Ben's head snapped backwards from Fearne's mighty headbutt. Fearne initially relented, believing that Ben was about to sink into unconsciousness, when all of a sudden...

KNIVES! KNIVES!” Ben grasped Fearne's arms, nails cutting into her skin, “YOU! YOU'RE A MAGE TOO!

Astonished, Fearne gasped, “What?! You're still up?! Son of a...!”


* * * CRACK! * * *

Fearne had put all her strength into her second headbutt, the impact sending her staggering forward several feet... and Ben flying back several yards. Ward thought to himself that such a headbutt would've likely decapitated a normal person.

Dazed by the impact, Ben finally fell to his knees before collapsing in an unconscious heap. Happy in the knowledge that Ben was now truly incapacitated, Fearne allowed herself to turn away as she held a hand to her own head, her ears ringing. Ward came to her side while Aloysius inspected Ben's fallen body.

“Fearne! You okay?”

“Ugh,” Fearne stumbled for a moment, “Never had somebody stay standing after one headbutt before. I'll be lucky if that second one didn't fracture my skull!”

“What happened to Ben?”

“Whaddaya think happened?” Fearne spat, “He lost his bloody mind, that's what happened! I saw him walk past that summoner chump a few minutes ago when all of a sudden he ran back after him and swung his bloody axe into his bloody chest! Out of nowhere, literally out of nowhere!”

“I'll take him to a cell,” Aloysius grunted, heaving Ben's body over one of his shoulders, “Maybe when he regains consciousness he will have retaken some of his sanity.”

“I'm telling you,” Fearne said as Aloysius departed, “He's a lost cause. We oughta just put him away now – it'd be kinder.”

That will be my decision,” Came Myssil's voice. Having just approached the scene of Ben's outburst, Myssil approached Ward and Fearne, folding her arms, “My decision, not yours. Understand?”

“You're making a mistake, he'll...” Noticing the glare on Myssil's face, Fearne did something almost unheard of for her – relent, “Fine, whatever you say.” She muttered.

“So,” Myssil turned to Ward, “Ben's curse got to the better of him, I understand? Has he been detained?”

“Aloysius just hauled him off to a cell moments ago, Protector.”

“Good, good... I was hoping to be able to tell you this news in a somewhat more positive setting, but... the storm mage behind the attack on Derth has been located.”

“Really?! Excellent! So, ah...” Ward glanced over his shoulder, “Where is he? Should I prepare now, or...?”

“Have some sense, Ward. You've only just returned from the Daikara. Perhaps you should relax for tonight, in preparation for your task.”

Ward was sceptical. “Are you sure? That storm over Derth's not getting any smaller. I've still got energy, I'm sure I could—”

“Yes, you should relax,” Myssil repeated, this time with a smile, “Maybe have a few drinks...?”

“... Perhaps I could use a little preparation time. A man can't fight on an empty liver, you know!”

“Good. Still, I should go check on Aloysius to make sure Ben's properly secured. Be ready by tomorrow; this will likely be your greatest task within the Ziguranth yet.”

Watching as Myssil paced away, Ward looked sideways at Fearne. “So... Looks like I've got some time to spare before my date with despicable destiny, eh? Want to head over to the tavern? There's a good dozen tankards there with our names on them, I hear...”

“Oh sure, we could go to the tavern here in Zigur,” Fearne said floatily, “We could have a few drinks, go back to your place! I could paint your nails, style your hair, pick out a nice dress for you...”

“Hey, what gives?”

Leaning in close to Ward, Fern gave a toothy grin. “I know a little hangout out in the wilds that makes the drinks here look like watered down gnat's piss. Why don't we go there so you can find out what a real drink tastes like?”

“A woman after my own heart,” Ward laughed, “Lead the way!”

“Hmph, alright then. It's this hidden compound out to the west...”


Last edited by Burb Lulls on Mon Mar 17, 2014 6:50 am, edited 2 times in total.

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 10, 2013 3:08 am 
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Uruivellas

Joined: Sat Jan 14, 2012 12:02 am
Posts: 703
I hear that Burb the Snow Giant Chieftain is not only stunningly handsome, but also a frequent updater of his Let's Plays for his fervently adoring audience.


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PostPosted: Wed Jul 10, 2013 9:32 am 
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Wyrmic

Joined: Wed Jan 25, 2012 5:39 pm
Posts: 237
Oooh. :lol: Now I want to read "Scaled Majesty" as well.


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PostPosted: Wed Jul 10, 2013 3:54 pm 
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Sher'Tul Godslayer

Joined: Fri May 07, 2004 8:26 pm
Posts: 2000
Location: Nahgharash
Well, according to this, Scaled majesty is a great many chapters in length... and Grey said he should write it :). I would suggest talking to Grey about that.

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PostPosted: Wed Jul 10, 2013 8:09 pm 
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Halfling

Joined: Mon Mar 05, 2012 10:35 pm
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Well, that escalated quickly. Myssil apparently knows why Linaniil is so goddamn powerful, but is under the impression that the god jacked Linaniil's body, rather than Linaniil jacking it's power. And apparently she's about to try something that Linaniil thinks is batshit crazy, which is probably REALLY bad news.


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PostPosted: Wed Feb 12, 2014 11:17 am 
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Sher'Tul

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Missing the adventures of Ward :(


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PostPosted: Mon Mar 17, 2014 6:57 am 
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Spiderkin

Joined: Mon Jul 26, 2004 5:20 am
Posts: 479
Location: Blighty
We return with “Ward: Bulwark of the Ziguranth”! In tonight's exciting instalment, everybody's favourite band of plucky mage murderers gets thrown quite a curveball...

    SLAVERS' COMPOUND 1

Ringing ears. Stiff and aching limbs from lying in an uncomfortable position for far too long. The feel of coarse, cold, uneven cobblestone against the cheek. Hazy memories of an ill-advised drinking contest and many, many trips to the bathroom. Breath like fumes from an open sewer. An aversion to light that would make any vampire look like a veritable sun worshipper. And pain, lots of pain.

Going by his hangover, Ward judged his previous night of drinking as 'a keeper'.

Sprawled underneath a table within a small and disorganised tavern, dimly illuminated by morning sunlight bleeding through overly thin and obscured windows set high in the rough stone walls, Ward attempted to piece together the events that had transpired the night before, here at Fearne's suggested watering hole.

Obviously there was drink, lots of drink – the kind that comes in bottles festooned with crosses, skulls and promises of death. Ward dimly remembered his and Fearne's drinking companions for the majority of the night; a shifty assortment of muscular, shaven-headed gentlemen clad in stained leather vests. Despite their brutish demeanour, they had been quite forthcoming with their coin, paying for many of his and Fearne's drinks. He wondered why that was...

And then there was the drinking contest, of course. Between himself and Fearne, if he remembered correctly. Oddly enough, he couldn't remember who won.

Cranking open his eye a few millimetres, dazzling his alcohol-soaked brain in the process, Ward saw the silhouette of a unsteady female figure stood looking down at him. “H... Hello...?” Ward groaned.

Bastard!

Bringing a boot back, Fearne attempted to kick Ward's prone body, only to miss by several feet and keel over backwards, striking her head against the stone floor as she fell.

“I take it I won the drinking contest, then.”

“You cheated!” Staggering back onto her feet, Fearne snarled, “You threw your drinks over your shoulder! You spiked 'em with water! Something!” Another wildly inaccurate kick from Fearne, followed by another head-first introduction to the ground, “Bastard!

“Fearne, Fearne. Look,” Having regained enough of his faculties to stand upright, Ward grabbed hold of Fearne's leg to prevent a third attempt at a kick, “We can fight later. Shouldn't we be getting back to Zigur, or something? Everyone'll probably be wondering where we are.”

“Feh,” Fearne waved a hand dismissively, “Like I'm worried. What's little miss Myssil gonna do if she's upset with me, huh? Bite my kneecaps?”

Taking a moment to respond, during which Ward silently considered how someone like Fearne actually got recruited into the Ziguranth in the first place, he shrugged, “Well, whatever. We better get back anyway. There was something I was supposed to do today,” Squinting momentarily, Ward attempted to think back to his conversation with Myssil the night before, “... I think.”

Fearne nodded assent and, taking a few minutes to reclaim their possessions, which had been scattered gaily around the confines of the tavern, prepared to take their leave. “You were right about this place, though,” Ward grinned, “Some night it was.”

“Pfft. It was pretty tame this time, actually,” Fearne rubbed her neck, “The slavers that run the place didn't even try to kidnap us or anything.”

Immediately, Ward stopped in his tracks. “Excuse me?” He said politely, hoping he had misheard Fearne.

“Slavers,” Fearne repeated, “Those big guys with the skinheads. A few of those little white fuzzball yeeks, too. Or 'yaechs', or whatever. Whenever anyone gets really bladdered here, they try to cart ya off and use ya in their slave-fighting ring. Trust me, I've had to chew through more than a few leather restraints to get out of here some nights. It's worth it for the drinks, though.”

“Huh. Slavers. Well, I'll be,” Ward tapped a finger to his chin in thought, before pointing over his shoulder with a smile, “So, I guess it's about time we got going then? Just gotta use the facilities before we leave. Be right back!”

With that, Ward walked away from Fearne, departing through a solid-looking stone door, partially obscured behind the bar. “That's not the restroom...” Fearne muttered confusedly as she began to walk after Ward, “That's the door leading into the main compound, isn't it?” Having reached said door, Fearne opened it a crack as she continued, “Why would he go this way? I—”

The first thing – indeed, the only thing – that Fearne saw as she looked beyond the door were dead slavers. Quite a few of them.

“... Oh.”

    * * *

Die an agonising death, slaver filth!

With violent, brutal, artless strikes, his mouth alive with violent threats and his shield serving more as a painful, broad bludgeon than a... well, a shield, Ward's current state was a far cry from the usual measured fighting style he employed.

With the bulk of the slavers within the compound not ready for such a bloodthirsty assault, Ward found it simple to carve his way through any slaver unlucky enough to get within his striking range, and any sword stroke or fireball tossed in his direction were either effortlessly deflected or outright ignored.

“Go ahead, run!” Ward roared, his brutalising of the slavers causing their weaker-willed number to flee, “All that'll happen is that you'll die tired! Every single one of you is going to pay, and when I find the pair behind this compound, you can bet I've got a special surprised lined up for—GAWK!

The bulk of the slavers were not ready for a bloodthirsty assault. However, some of them were. Such as this one, having blown Ward off his feet with a piercing shaft of light from his palm. He now strode towards Ward's prone figure, a retinue of enthralled slaves in tow.

“Didn't expect to fight somebody with celestial training, did you, my furious friend?” The slaver sneered, motes of light still dancing around his hand, “Quite a number you did on my colleagues here... Mm, someone with your fire, you'd be a good fit for the Ring of—”

The celestial slaver had made a fatal mistake in assuming that his single firebeam had truly incapacitated Ward. Leaping to his feet, Ward rushed towards the slaver and, after blocking one of his retaliatory strikes, delivered a counterstrike assault that sent him careening clear across the room. In several pieces.

The slaves that had accompanied the slaver, their enthralment dispelled, hurriedly fled the chamber as Ward gathered himself. That firebeam had stung; if the slaver had continued his assault instead of stopping to gloat, he may well have finished him. Having recovered enough to continue his rampage, Ward began to descend to the compound's second level when a familiar voice stopped him.

“Ward! Ward!” Fearne shouted as she sprinted into the room. Not stopping for breath, she gasped, “What the hell's gotten into you?! I mean, geez! Did you have an abusive slaver for a father or something?! You could've waited for me to catch up! And before, what were you yelling about?! When I find the pair behind this compound? What makes you think there's a pair—”

If Ward had listened to any of Fearne's speech, he hid it well. Rounding on Fearne suddenly enough to startle her into silence, he yelled, “I can't believe you, Fearne! You're seriously telling me that you knew that this place was run by slavers, and you've done nothing about it?!”

“Hey, easy! I didn't think it was—”

“What's the matter with you?! All you do is attack people indiscriminately because you think they're arseholes, yet the one time you actually come across a place legitimately full to the brim with arseholes, you do nothing?!”

Surprised by Ward's outburst, Fearne stumbled over her own words for a moment, “Well, y-yeah, um, I knew that, but... C'mon Ward, the drinks here—”

“Fearne, listen. I've got my own still, back in Derth. You think the drinks here are strong? Murder every slaver here that you see, and I'll hook you up with booze that'll turn your brain into a puddle and have your teeth pouring out of your mouth like soggy sweetcorn! Clear?!”

Fearne began to reply, but Ward had already stormed off, eager to slay as many slavers as he could before they realised something was wrong and scattered. A slaving operation as large as this, he thought... There was a good possibility that they could have a hand in it.

If he acted quickly, he might be able to catch them before they left.

    SLAVERS' COMPOUND 2

Perish screaming, slaver scum!

Seeing the infuriated armour-clad warrior bearing down on him, sword and teeth bared, Unfortunate Slaver #36 cast his gaze about in a panic, looking for some way to divert Ward's anger. In a surprisingly intelligent move, the slavers had actually placed their strongest and most battle-hardened number at the entrance of their compound – the one with celestial training being their most lethal – rather than at the centre. With Ward's penetration of the compound's first floor, this strategy had now backfired; the armour had been punctured, and now Ward was carving a bloody path through the slavers' soft, inexperienced underbelly.

Backed into a corner alongside one of his enthralled slaves, now ineffectually clawing at Ward's armour, the slaver came to a decision. If there was one thing that could stop these insufferable 'champion of justice' types in their tracks, it was this.

“Hey! Hero! You wanna kill me? Then you've gotta go through him!

Ward, who at that moment in time had his sword raised in preparation for a fatal strike at the slaver, let his sword-arm fall as he watched the slaver wrap a thick arm around the slave's neck, dragging him inbetween himself and Ward. Thanks to the narrow corner the slaver was backed into, he couldn't reach past the slave to strike at his captor.

“Yeah, that's right, hero. Where's that righteous anger now? Funny how just one little thing not going your way can bring all yer bravado and bluster to a screeching halt, eh? See, this is why all that 'ethics' and 'morality' mumbo-jumbo's just one giant albatross around ya neck. See, as you long as you think that way, and I've got my friend here, I may as well be invincib—”

The slaver was cut off as he suffered the unmistakable (yet previously inexperienced) sensation of a longsword ploughing through his chest. Looking downwards, the last thing he saw was Ward's blade, having pierced both his and his captive's hearts – an overly macabre shishkebab.

Forcing the pair of bodies from his sword, Ward turned and continued his hurried descent into the heart of the slaver compound, his mind racing. He had been awfully quick to sacrifice that slave just to get to the slaver... Perhaps he knew deep down that, by not hesitating, he stood to save more slave lives than if he had allowed the slaver to drag out their confrontation? Perhaps the slaver's usage of the word 'hero' reminded Ward that he didn't consider himself as such – what with his Ziguranth membership and all. Maybe he just wanted to wipe that smug grin off the slaver's face.

But most of all, Ward thought to himself that, when it came down to it, he wasn't killing slavers because he wanted to free slaves, but rather because he simply wanted to kill slavers.

“Well,” Muttered Ward as he continued to run, “There's an interesting pathological facet to my personality I'll have to mull over... but later.”

Coming to a large flight of stairs, Ward slowed to a jog as he beheld the ornate archway that framed it, the words 'THE RING OF BLOOD' inscribed upon it.

“Looks like it's time for the main event...”

    SLAVERS' COMPOUND 3

At the bottom of the slavers' compound awaited quite the spectacle. An arena, but not the sort of arena that the common man knew such as Derth's modest affair, or Rej Arkatis' world-famous theatre of combat. This was the Ring of Blood, a slave-fighting ring, frequented by prospective buyers of slaves, slave traders eager to show off their 'wares', common slavers who derived a certain pleasure from watching their compelled charges fighting eachother to the death, and of course, those who simply wished to witness bloodshed and suffering at a level that more reputable arenas could not – or would not – provide.

Stood at a podium overlooking the lava-encircled arena, one of his hands placed covetously upon the Orb of Control, stood the Blood Master, proprietor of the Ring of Blood and head of the resident slaver operation. He was a yaech, a subspecies of yeek, their most distinctive aspect being their refusal to join the yeek's 'Way'.

If ever an advertisement was needed for showing why joining the Way was a Good Thing©, you'd have to look no further than the Blood Master.

“Laaadies and gentlemen!” The Blood Master cheered to the baying crowd, “It's that time once again! Tell me! Are you ready for some combat?!”

The crowd cheered!

“Are you ready for some carnage?!

The crowd yelled!

“Are you ready for some suffering?!

The crowd roared!

“Are you ready for some BLOOD?!

The crowd screamed, pointing behind the Blood Master in a panic!

ARE YOU READY FOR... Seriously,” The Blood Master frowned, confused by the continued, deafening screaming from the crowd as they desperately tried to call attention to Ward storming up behind him, “You're usually never this loud. Got a real bloodthirst today, ladies and gentlemen?!”

“Yes,” Came Ward's reply, “I suppose I have.”

Startled, the Blood Master whirled around to see Ward stood directly behind him.

“An intruder?! I... What is the meaning of thi—mmp!

Ward had placed a finger to the yaech's lips, silencing him. “I have a riddle for you.” He said quietly.

“...?”

“What has white fur, a bad attitude, a reputation for being an incredibly easy boss, and a caved-in face?”

“I—” Was about all the Blood Master could get out before plated gauntlet met nose.

As Ward began the obviously violent – yet somehow comedic – act of tossing a small fuzzy white man around like a ragdoll, the majority of the audience took the hint that the Ring of Blood, as a slave-fighting venue, might've been in a little bit of trouble, and wisely took their leave. Following a few minutes of manhandling the woefully underpowered NPC, Ward took the Blood Master by the throat. Looking downwards at the slave-fighting arena, not to mention its lava moat, Ward took a few steps back, wound his arm around a few times, and threw.

Thump! The Blood Master's body met with the hard, earthy floor of the arena, and not the hot, bubbling surface of the lava as he had expected. Barely believing his own luck, the Blood Master stumbled onto his feet and gave an astonished laugh, looking upwards towards Ward. “Ha... haha! You buffoon! You missed the lava! Ha!”

“I've got news for you,” Having paced across to the opposite side of the arena's edge, Ward now had his sword's pommel poised above the control orb that enthralled the slaves currently fighting within the arena. With one measured strike of his sword's hilt, the orb was shattered, “I wasn't aiming at the lava.”

Not immediately understanding the full ramifications of Ward's actions, the Blood Master looked towards the open holding cages adjacent to the arena to see a figure, half-obscured in shadow. Several figures, half-obscured in shadow. Several dozen figures, half-obscured in shadow. Brawlers, liberated from their enthralment. The sheer noise of their combined cracking of knuckles and neck muscles was such that it was enough to drown out the Blood Master's initial yelp of fear.

The Blood Master's final thoughts before being ripped, quite literally, limb from limb were, “Just my luck to have this happen right before 'The Ring of Blood's 50-Man Midweek Bloodbath!'

    * * *

The Blood Master was dead, the audience had fled, and the liberated brawlers had given Ward their thanks and departed. For a few brief seconds, Ward was alone within the now-vacant Ring of Blood, the silence decidedly eerie, considering how loud and full of activity it had been moments hence.

“Hey! Hey!” Heralded by her echoing footfalls, Fearne hurried into the Ring of Blood. She cast her gaze around, and on spotting Ward snapped, “There you are! How do you move so fast in all that armour?!
Freakin' having to play catch-up for the entire dungeon...

“Sorry, Fearne,” Ward said, the violent impulses he had been victim to for the entirety of his foray into the slaver compound finally quieting, “I can't help it. Slavers, y'know? If I'm in a position to stop them... I can't help myself. It's like a compulsion.”

“Huh,” Fearne sighed, approaching Ward as she spoke, “A compulsion, huh? I mean, I get it, slavers are scum. But there are lots of other types of scum out there, aren't there? You've got your corruptors, your necromancers, taxmen...”

“Hmhm. Scathing socioecological satire there, Fearne.” Ward remarked dryly.

“... but whatever. Why is it that slavers make you blow your top, and nothing else?”

Ward remained silent for a few moments before responding to Fearne. With a long sigh, he eventually said, “I'd... rather not say. Sorry, Fearne. It's personal, y'know?”

“Eh, whatever,” Fearne gave a small nod, “Not like I care that much. You don't want it dug up, and I don't feel like digging. Anyway,” Fearne thumbed over her shoulder, “We oughta get going, Ward.”

Ward nodded assent, and both he and Fearne made to leave. However, before they could, a man's voice rung out across the silent arena, a voice that made Ward stand stock still.

“Ward? Aah, so it is you, Andrus!”

“Andrus?” Came a second voice, that of a woman, “Truly? After all these years? You've changed so much!”

Ward and Fearne turned towards the source of the two voices to see that, out of the entire audience that once filled the arena's stands, two figures remained.

“Huh? Who the heck are those two?” Fearne turned to Ward, “And why do they know your name?”

But Ward wasn't listening. Silently, he paced towards the couple that had lingered in the arena, now stood directly behind the magic shield that separated the arena's stands from the Ring of Blood's centre. They were a middle-aged pair, both with black hair shot through with grey, clad in the finery associated with that of an upper-class merchant caste.

Ward looked at the pair of them, their jovial grins met with a deep-set, disgusted frown. He spat tersely.

“Hello, father. Hello, mother.”

    * * *

Earlier, while scaling the Daikara, Aloysius had mentioned that he had heard of a wealthy family within Last Hope bearing the Ward name. He had assumed them to be a family of merchants and, in a strictly literal sense, he was correct. But what he did not realise was the items imparticular that they traded in; slaves.

During his childhood Ward, scion to this eminent and affluent family, their involvement in slave trafficking strictly kept under wraps and hidden from Last Hope society at large, lived a life of luxury and leisure, a far cry from his life within what he claimed was his hometown, Derth.

It was at the age of twelve that Ward realised the true nature of his parents' business when, by happenstance, a slave escaped his bonds during a clandestine sale being held at his family manor. The slave, frantic and half-mad with stress, had burst into Ward's bedchamber and, as Ward himself remembered vividly, begged him to hide him, help him escape, anything. Ward had only scant seconds to process this turn of events before, with the sound of a twang and a meaty thunk, the slave fell dead, a crossbow bolt in his back. At his bedchamber's door stood his father, crossbow in hand.

The explanations and rationalisations of his parents fell on deaf ears. Ward fled his home the very same night, taking only some small amount of food and a pittance of coins before departing. By some miracle he found his way to Derth, a town many leagues away from Last Hope. As a homeless, penniless youth, Ward's chances of survival looked slim. It was fortunate then that the first building he had visited to beg for food from was the headquarters of Derth's warriors' guild. The guildmaster, having listened to Ward's sob story, had bluntly stated that at a guild such as his, food was earned, not given, and so began Ward's role as errand boy for the warriors' guild. The rest, as they say, is history.

Some days, Ward wondered what his life would have been like if that slave had never broken free and begged for his help, if slave trading was introduced to his young mind in a manner suitable for his parents – distantly, impersonally, the promise of profit placed far beyond the simple reality of the business.

Frankly, it scared him.

    * * *

“Andrus, my boy! You're looking well. Don't you agree, dear?”

“I suppose he does, in a manner of speaking. Although, judging by that frightful eye injury, I imagine that depth perception is naught but a distant, hazy memory for him!” That pair released a laugh, shrill and nasal, “Still, Andrus, do tell! How have you been these past years? We have missed you.”

Ward struck the barrier separating him and his parents, hard.

“Now now, my boy,” Ward's father admonished, “We're a little old for temper tantrums now, aren't we? Surely there must be something you want to say to us?”

Ward's reply was curt. “The moment I am able, I will kill you.”

“Ah, heavens,” Ward's mother sighed, shaking her head sadly, “I had thought that, given the time that's passed, you would have gotten over your queasiness regarding our trade. You're a grown man now, Andrus. It's about time you came back home; after all, one day it'll be you at the head of our household!”

“I've just flat-out murdered every single slaver I've come across in this compound... barring you two. If you think for a second that I'm having anything to do with the pair of you, beyond throttling you, then your brains must be even more rotten than I thought.”

But Ward's father was undeterred. “Come now, Andrus. You've kept our family name. Heavens, from what we've heard, you even prefer to be called it over your first name! If you truly resented us, wouldn't you have changed your name, rather than embraced it?”

“You want to know why I kept it? Because I want it to mean something more than what it means now. Right now, the Ward family is nothing but a pack of two-bit slaver trash. But soon? Soon, when people hear the Ward name, they'll think of me, of my deeds and – heavens willing – my descendants. The pair of you, and your slave trade, will be nothing more than an ignored, ignominious footnote.”

“Hah!” Following a brief, braying guffaw, Ward's mother exclaimed, “Your deeds? Such as what? Judging by that distinctive caged-flame emblem on your shield, I see that you've thrown in your lot with the Ziguranth!”

“Really? The Ziguranth?” Ward's father was astonished, “My son, a simple moss-eater? Preposterous! What cause do you even have to hate magic?”

Ward struck the barrier separating them again, “Seeing as its the only thing currently keeping you alive right now? There's nothing I hate more.”

“Hrmm. Still,” With a stretch, Ward's father adjusted his cufflinks and motioned to his wife, indicating that it was time to leave, “Looks like he hasn't come around yet, dear. Shall we be off? You needn't worry; he won't be able to find us once we've left.”

“I will find you. One day.”

Ignoring Ward, his mother delicately hooked her arm around her husband's and smiled, “Yes, let us be off. Seeing dear Andrus again has made me appreciate our homestead that much more. Lead the way, dear.”

Ward could only watch as his parents departed, their egress as relaxed as if they had just finished watching a stageplay. Ward continued to glare beyond the barrier after they had left, only coming to his senses as Fearne tapped him on the shoulder.

“So, yeeeah...” She offered an uneasy grin, “About that 'had an abusive slaver for a father' thing I said...”

    WILDERNESS

“Geez, family drama much?”

Walking alongside Ward as the pair made their way back to Zigur, Fearne sighed, “So, looks like soldier boy has some serious daddy issues... You going to be suckin' a lemon for the entire walk back to Zigur?”

“I'll try not to,” Replied Ward, attempting a dry smile, “Way I see it, if I let my parents get me angry when they're not around, I'm letting them have too much control over my life. I'll try and forget about it, for now.”

“Good. Last thing I need is you going all Captain Emo on me.”

“Mm. So, anyway,” Turning to Fearne, Ward enquired, “What about your parents? Anything interesting about them?”

“Dead,” Fearne replied simply, “Poverty got 'em. Would've got me, too, if I wasn't so handy with a club. It's fair to say that marauding got me out of the gutter. Didn't do it quick enough to save my folks, though...”

“Really? So, do you ever feel guilty, feel like that if you had started your career a little earlier, your parents would still be alive?”

“Hey, y'know what?” Fearne slapped her hands together, expertly changing the topic, “Before we head back to Zigur, I've got a little stop I want to make on the way. It's like a tradition. If you'll indulge me...?”

With a nod, Ward shrugged, “Lead the way.”

    GOLEM GRAVEYARD

    Level 20! +1 Strength, +2 Constitution, +1 Greater Weapon Focus, +1 Step Up
    Category Point: +1 Battle Tactics

“Tch,” Fearne tutted impatiently as both she and Ward easily demolished a smattering of near-demolished golems that aimlessly wandered within the clearing, “Every time I'm here I think I've wrecked all of the golems, but there's always just a few extra stragglers, a few hangers-on...”

With their golem assailants fully discombobulated, Ward took a moment to gaze around the clearing Fearne had led him to. In addition to the ruined, incomplete golems they had just destroyed, many more motionless metal husks of varying size and decomposition could be seen dotting the area – must've been hundreds, at least.

“What a curious place. It's hard to tell past all the shrubs and vegetation, but I can feel there's some slight deformation in the land here... Scars, shallow craters. What with that and the golems, I can only assume there must've been a huge battle here at some point, but going by how much plantlife there is here, it must've been countless years ago...”

Fearne gave a disinterested grunt, having wandered a distance from Ward to poke at some of the twitching remnants of their fallen golem adversaries.

“So, why do you make a point of coming here so often? Is there something special about this place?”

“You could say that,” Fearne smirked, amused by Ward's query. Pointing over his shoulder, she added, “Why not turn around and crane your neck up a few degrees? A few dozen degrees.”

Baffled by the request, Ward nevertheless turned on the spot and gazed upwards, finally noticing the looming, ancient, multi-story high golem whose shadow he was stood in. With a gasp of surprise Ward stumbled backwards, having to take a few further steps back to see the top of the forty foot tall tower of metal and marble.

“What in the world...?! How did I not notice this?!”

“I think that's what they call, in the biz, 'failing a spot check',” Fearne snickered, “I know you've only got one eye, but geez.”

“A golem this big...” Ward breathed, “It must be Atamathon.”

One of Eyal's greatest examples of golemcraft, Atamathon was a giant construct built during the Age of Pyre by the halflings in the hopes of halting the endless rampage of Garkul's orcish hordes across Maj'Eyal. With joints of voratun, the strength of a titan and a body capable of burning with the ferocity of lava, Atamathon truly possessed the power of a bonus boss.

Incidentally, bringing up Atamathon in conversation with patriotic halflings is something of a coin toss. On one hand, they may take pride in their race's creation. On the other hand, they may become confrontational, somewhat embarrassed by the ignominious way Atamathon met defeat...

“Garkul. He defeated Atamathon with a headbutt.”

Not paying attention to Ward, Fearne was staring upwards at Atamathon's face. One of its eye sockets was empty, the other filled with a huge ruby of countless filigrees. “Look at that thing,” She sighed, “If I could get my hands on it, I'd be able to stride into Last Hope, jam it in their Elder's stupid mouth, buy the entire friggin' city and tell 'em to keep the change. Every time I'm here I have a go at knocking it loose – most of the time I just chuck stuff at it, although sometimes I've clambered up there to have a proper go. Hasn't come loose yet, but seeing how the other one's missing, it must be possible...”

Taking the Steel Helm of Garkul from his knapsack, Ward held it up to inspect the dent that dominated its visor. He idly tapped the helm against Atamathon's body as he spoke, considering the force that would've been required to sunder the giant golem, “You're a marauder, Fearne. Is this why you always come here? To... pay your respects, like a pilgrimage? Is Garkul, like, a patron saint of marauders or something?”

“... What in blazes are you babbling about?”

“Huh?”

“You know why I come here? I come here to keep in the good books of that shower of bastards back in Zigur!” Turning from Ward, she forcefully wrenched a section of bodywork off a nearby golem as she continued angrily, “They always get so bitchy whenever I go a long time without killing any mages, so I hafta come here to get some dead golem parts to pretend I have! It's not my fault if the people I get into fights with don't wear stupid hats or cast sissy spells! It's out of my hands! At least if I return to Zigur with some golem scrap, I don't have to have Al or that trainer whine at me the entire day for not 'fulfilling Zigur's goals' or whatever! Ugh!”

“Hmm. How scurrilous.” Ward observed.

“Yup.”

“Underhanded, too.”

“You bet it is, chump.”

“Can I take some golem parts, too?”

“Knock yourself out.”

“Aces,” Kneeling down to scoop up an assortment of fallen golem bits, Ward wondered to himself, “You know, I swear there was something I was meant to do today... What was it...?”

    ZIGUR

“Hah! How many alchemists did we slay today, Ward? Fifty, a hundred, two thousand?! Stop me when I get close!”

“Yeah! I-It was like... More like ow-chemists than alchemists! Right? Just look at how many golems we wrecked! See?”

“Another impressive haul,” Rumbled the Ziguranth's trainer, dutifully jotting down Fearne and Ward's 'exploits' upon a roll of parchment, “This must be, what, your twentieth alchemist set-to to date, Fearne!”

“Indeed,” Stood beside the trainer, Aloysius eyed Fearne oddly, “Impressive as it is, sister, I must wonder why you always insist on bringing back destroyed golem parts, and nothing else.”

Fearne shrugged, offering, “Consider it a trademark.”

“Some of the parts are burnt... How did you manage that?”

“Oh, I, uh... headbutted some of 'em so hard they burst into flames! Marauders can do that, didn't you know?”

“And the designs are ancient...”

“What can I say? I suppose some alchies like their golems retro.”

Following a few seconds of consideration, Aloysius eventually relented, saying with a smile, “Well, I suppose I shouldn't question the veracity of a fellow Ziguranth sister. What possible reason could you have to lie about your exploits? I must say, the number of alchemists you have defeated is uncanny. Fearne, I would be most interested in hearing what strategies you employ to ensure such—”

And just where on Eyal have you two been?

Ward, Fearne, Aloysius, and the trainer's heads all snapped upwards upon hearing the stern voice that rung across Zigur. Waiting upon the threshold of her residence, Myssil stood with her arms akimbo, her foot tapping with indignation, her unamused gaze upon Ward and Fearne. Ward couldn't help but feel like a two-timing husband, caught by his wife slinking in past midnight. On the bright side, at least he remembered what it was he had meant to do today.

“... The storm mage. Right...”

“Ward? My chambers. On the double.”

As Myssil turned to re-enter her home, Ward in tow, Fearne called after her, “Hey, Myssil! Don't you want to hear about how many alchemists we managed to slay while—”

“Later, Fearne,” Myssil said dismissively, “How many more times are you going to bring in old golem remains from Atamathon's grave to pretend you've fought alchemists anyway? You'll have the place stripped clean in months at this rate.”

What?” Boomed the trainer and Aloysius in unison, astonished gazes falling upon Fearne.

“Oh, by the Void! Thanks, Protector Pipsqueak!”

Following Myssil into her domicile, Ward listened as Fearne, Aloysius and the trainer's conversation faded out of earshot.

“Pretending to perform the duty of the Ziguranth with this chicanery! Such insubordination!”
“I should say so, trainer! To think a sister could sink so low...!”
“Oh, give it a rest, Al! Who died and made you Protector?!”
“Does this mean that every time you've brought in golem parts... you've been lying?! This is...! This is an outrage!”
“Please, brother trainer! I take upon myself the responsibility for Fearne's misdeeds. It appears I have been lax in educating her of our duties...”
“I SWEAR I AM THIS CLOSE TO CUTTING YOU, YOU CONDESCENDING MULTICOLOURED BASTARD”

    * * *

“So, Ward. Upon the day you were meant to scale Tempest Peak and confront Urkis, the storm mage guilty of tormenting Derth, your hometown, with endless tempests and hordes of gwelgoroths, you and Fearne decide to pull a vanishing act, only returning as night begins to fall. Care to explain to me what distracted you to such a degree?”

Judging by how affronted Myssil appeared, Ward felt it best to divulge to her the entirety of his and Fearne's actions within the slaver compound – encounter with his parents included. The time he could use his relative inexperience within the Ziguranth as an excuse for misdemeanour was fast coming to an end, and despite his and Myssil's long discussion before his initiation, he no longer felt he could expect special treatment from her regarding insubordination. Now, he was just another member of the Ziguranth, and Myssil – Protector Myssil – was his superior.

“... So then, following a brief detour to Atamathon's grave to get golem parts, we returned to Zigur. I'm sorry, Protector.”

Myssil had listened to Ward story in silence, and only as he finished did she sit up in her chair, considering the story he had told her.

“So, that is the reason behind your previous reluctance to speak of your family and your youth... You hail from a family of slavers.”

“Not anymore, I don't,” Ward replied, “That, truly, is the greatest reason why I'm reluctant to speak of my parents. Because, to me, they aren't my parents. They aren't my family. I don't want to be known as 'Ward, that one guy whose parents are slavers'. I just want to be Ward.”

“Understandable. Although, 'Ward, of the Ziguranth' is okay? In certain circles such a title could be seen as worse.”

“Hmhm. Seeing as the Ziguranth are committed to the utter destruction of such 'circles'... I think I can live with that. Wouldn't surprise me if the slavers me and Fearne wiped out had supplied Angolwen at one time or another.”

“Perhaps. Still,” Softening, Myssil gave something resembling a smile, “While I cannot condone you ignoring your duties, at least you were not simply slacking for the sake of slacking.”

“Thank you, Protector. Still, I feel a fool – you calling Derth my hometown just now reminded me of what I'm fighting to save, facing this storm mage. I can hardly say I've truly accepted Derth as my true home if I allow somebody like this, this Urkis to have his way with it. I swear – tomorrow, his fate is sealed.”

“Good.” Getting to her feet, Myssil turned to look out of a window – outside, Aloysius and the trainer could still be seen attempting to teach an increasingly irate Fearne the finer points of 'Ziguranth-ing'. “Additionally,” Myssil sighed, “During your absence you missed another event of some importance... regarding Ben Cruthdar.”

“Ben! That's right, I totally forgot about him!” Straightening up in his chair, Ward enquired, “Is he okay? When he woke up, had he come back to his senses?”

“Yes, as far as we could tell. He had no memory of his episode the night before. He seemed somewhat distant and quiet... but then, he always has been. We released him from his confinement, and for a few hours he appeared to have returned to normal, but then...”

“... But then...?”

“He vanished. Gone. We found his quarters stripped of his belongings. He left Zigur almost ten hours ago, and we haven't heard from him since. True, he has left unannounced countless times before, but never like this. Seeing how he acted the night before...” Myssil held a hand to her head, “I can't help but feel I've made a terrible mistake.”

“Ah, don't worry about it,” Ward soothed, “I'm sure he has his reasons. I think he just has a few issues he needs to sort out – things not related to his curse, even. He'll be back when he's good and ready. Until then, all we can do is... Say, can you hear that?”

Myssil cocked her head sideways, “Hear what?”

Getting to his feet, Ward joined Myssil at the window, looking out of it for the source of the steadily-growing noise, “Sounds like a crowd of people talking about something. I think something's happening out there.”

Curious, Myssil opened her chamber's window to better hear outside, and immediately the noise of a loud and unsettled crowd became apparent. For a moment Ward and Myssil stood in confusion, hoping to hear, amongst the chatter of the unseen throng, some hint as to what had spooked them. When they did hear said hint, they were out of the door within seconds.

Mage! There's a mage within Zigur!

    * * *

Stood atop one of the roofs that topped Zigur's buildings, a human woman with bright blue eyes and waves of blonde hair – a 'higher', judging by her appearance – gazed upon the baying crowd beneath her with a beatific grin. Her longsword sheathed, she made no attempt to retaliate to the obvious hostility that the Ziguranth below her displayed; indeed, her only action was to periodically renew the magical shield about her with a rune, to deflect the intermittent knives and arrows launched in her direction.

How this woman had appeared within the centre of Zigur without being detected was a mystery. Members of the Ziguranth could sense mana naturally, yet not a soul had sensed the mage's presence, not until she was spotted upon the rooftop, apparently waiting for a sufficient crowd to gather. This was part of the reason why the gathered Ziguranth hadn't yet climbed up to rip her limb from limb in earnest, but what had stunned the Ziguranth more were the first words that escaped her lips. Myssil herself, having arrived with Ward at this point, had to repeat them to herself in astonishment.

“You want... to join the Ziguranth?!”

“That is correct, my pintsized Protector,” The mage bowed low, sweeping a hand before herself theatrically. Her melodramatic gestures and turn of phrase made it hard to discern whether she was being sarcastic or merely flamboyant, “I, Serae of Last Hope, wish to join your fine order forthwith. I'm sure my talents could be of no small amount of use to you...”

The crowd, already murmuring in puzzlement at this mage's intentions, only become more unsettled and noisy with Serae's statement.

“Really?” Ward said to himself, baffled, “I know that mages tend to suffer from diminished common sense... but really?”

“Not often a lamb trots up willingly to the slaughter,” Fearne smiled grimly, “Think I can have this one? Bet I can bust that shielding rune with one headbutt.”

“It matters not who slays her!” Aloysius cried, the presence of a mage bringing out his most vociferous side, “Only that she is slain! If the arcanists believe themselves so invincible as to mock us within our own domain, then it is up to us to teach them their folly! Am I right, brothers?!”

Quelling the initial violent uprising in the crowd brought on by Aloysius' speech, Myssil turned again to Serae, who continued to stand and smile genially, and asked the question that every member of the Ziguranth present wanted to ask.


Image


Last edited by Burb Lulls on Fri Feb 20, 2015 4:08 pm, edited 1 time in total.

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PostPosted: Mon Mar 17, 2014 9:15 am 
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Master of Eyal

Joined: Wed Jul 24, 2002 9:26 pm
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Location: Angolwen
YAY !

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PostPosted: Wed Mar 19, 2014 3:35 pm 
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Uruivellas

Joined: Sat Jan 14, 2012 12:02 am
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What DG said


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