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|Prolog part 2: Introduction to the world of Netherholme. All languages other than english are untranslatable spells.||
The gnarled and wispy hands of the old mage clenched against the shoulders of his Asterran companion as he urged his bearer faster and farther through the early morning gloom. The Asterrans concentration must have been beginning to wear thin if he could flex his fingers that much. The spell of holding both he, and the Asterran, had interwoven into place was what had held him in place up to now, and if he could move his fingers in that manner, the Asterrans will was surely flagging indeed. The old mages own will tied into the spell was all that was holding his hands in place, and if he relinquished that to do something with his hands, the spell would be broken.
The Asterran was beginning to breathe more heavily now, and once again a frothy coat was beginning to cover the creatures sleek, muscular body. This morn however, they were in flight for their lives and neither could afford the luxury stopping to rest would cost them. Yet if he did not do something soon, neither would care about such things.
The old mage leaned farther forward on his friends back and spoke softly into his weary companions ear.
Not very far now Altarius, this should aide thee much!
The words the old mage spoke next were meant for the Asterrans ears alone. As he finished his hasty utterance, he shifted his fatigued hand gently to a spot on Altarius shoulder. A colorless glow emanating from beneath it pulsed a single heartbeat rhythm. The sweat-froth covering Altarius body began to fade away as if it had never been. The light of the moon glinting off the Asterrans eyes brightened as his vigor began to return.
I am afraid that was the last of the Source I can tap in that manner until I have a chance to rest old friend. Yet you needed it far more than I do and it is the last aide we will have until we reach my home--and reach home we must! Further aide may be found there.
Altarius harrumphed heartily and surged forward into the night, his energy restored and his fatigue washed away. In his mind, he had a thought that might lift the old mages spirits.
<Well, we would not want you to try hurling magic now Old Man>. The Asterrans thoughts were full of sarcasm as he added a soft snort. <I would dreadfully regret the need to drag you the rest of the way home after you fall from your perch with weariness.>
Ha! the old mage barked in unrestrained mirth at the unexpected visual image that followed with Altarius thought. Indeed you probably would. Now put on a fresh burst of speed before I turn thee into a toad or worse! I do not think...
The old mage never finished the thought, for his stomach twisted and lurched in a sickening manner as though he had been struck; pain filled his chest, and for a moment, he could not breathe. He would have lost his balance and fell from his perch if not for the great skill of Altarius; not to mention the holding spell placed about him. An image of his faithful guardian Raisce leapt unbidden to his mind, and he knew at once what had happened. He had linked himself to the Gargoyle in a way that even Raisce did not know, and even across great distance he would know if some ill had befallen the youth. From the extent of his discomfort, Orūn knew that Raisce had likely been mortally wounded, gravely incapacitated, or utterly destroyed.
No more time for talk old friend, growled Orūn, Raisce most likely has just been unmade! For all time or reparably is uncertain, but all haste must be made to find out! Quickly now!
While he had been talking, the old mage had removed a small adamantite crystal sphere from behind his left ear, where it hung on a silver chain from a clasp that he had braided into his hair, close to his scalp. It always rode there, hidden by his hair--a small sphere of adamantite from a much larger nodule, which he had used to create a form of network for communication and observation.
He murmured a single word and bent his will upon the stone, as if his very gaze could crack it. The stone glowed briefly and after two breaths, he allowed it to dim with a grim sigh. He hoped what he had seen was not part of the story of his young foundlings injury. He re-clasped the chain in place and bent low over Altarius back, urging him once more mentally.
Altarius ran as he had when they first began the flight for home, immediately following the fourth attack, the afternoon before. They had been heading for the Citadel of Kings in capitol city of Mer Shardofail in the mid-morning of the day before, from an audience with the Assembly of Demesnemer, when the attack had come--on the River Road as it passed through a small section of woods. The attack had come suddenly and without warning or provocation.
It was the morning of the second days travel in their journey from Mer Haevven to Mer Shardofail, and things were going wonderfully. The weather was pleasant, the sun was shining, and they had the road to themselves. The night before had been spent in Port Dunleith, and now they were well rested and on their way to the port of Tuathear Caladh. From there they would take a ship to Mer Shardofail. If they continued to travel by land from Tuathear Caladh, it would take them about thirteen days to reach their destination. If they took a ship instead, it would only take about a day.
Around midmorning, things started to go wrong. The sun was a quarter of the way in its daily journey when a creature of indeterminate size sprang out of the thick fog that often lay in that cool area of the wooded highway along the Foileathen River. Caught unawares, the travelers had no time to react and were thus bowled over by the sudden attack.
The creatures full brunt crashed home into Altarius, after which it kicked off the Asterran and plowed headlong into Orūns stallion. It drove the wind from their lungs and knocked Orūn clean off the horses back, into some brush. While Altarius was recovering and clambering to his feet, the creature leapt onto the stallion and ripped its throat out with razor sharp teeth. The blood flowed freely. It heard Altarius struggle to rise, and turning, began to circle Altarius. It slowly stalked him as one of the large cats of the jungle lands would.
As Orūn was extricating himself from the bramble-filled brush, he shouted the words as he fought his way clear of them. He was directly behind the creature, which still had its attention on Altarius. The creature seemed to spin around, as the fog surrounding it appeared to solidify, seethe, and coil. The mist grasped the creature and held it in place, strangling its attempted movements.
By this time, Altarius was up and the magically altered and controlled fog firmly held the creature in place. Orūn strode towards it and peered at it closely as it spitted and snarled its defiance, trying vainly to get at the wizard.
Orūn bore a look of astonishment on his face. A Daemon! How ever did you come to be here?
Narrowing his eyes at the creature, he sighed in frustration. Bah! I am talking to myself again. I already know you couldnt answer me, nor understand me, even if you wanted to.
He continued to study it for a few moments. Despite the fact that it had bowled both Altarius and the stallion over entirely, unseating the old mage in the process, it was very small for a daemon; only the size of a human child of three to four cycles in age. Though slightly larger, it was similar in structure to one of the small black and white monkeys that inhabit the low-lying valley jungles of a realm far to the south and west. Orūn had visited there once; he had observed and learned of these animals from the locals. A group of religious zealots that had moved into the area revered them because the white coloration around their face and chests looked similar to the hooded cowls the zealots wore as their raiment of office.
With a harrumph, Orūn brought his hands together with a loud CLAP! The sound, far louder than it should have been, echoed away, rolling for some distance as if caused by thunder. He rubbed his hands together in an up and down motion for a moment, as if contemplating some mischievous act. He then twisted his hands, with the palms still together, so that the fingers on each hand faced in opposite directions. He then drew his hands apart and as he did, formed them into fists. When his fists reached a point just past his shoulders, he opened his hands and made a pushing motion toward the daemon. In what appeared to be recognition of the wizards actions, the daemon screeched in torment and renewed its efforts to escape with increased vigor.
However, as Orūn finished the forward motion with his hands, the daemon was hurled backwards. It was as if there was a rope--attached to a boulder just launched from a catapult--tied around the daemons waist. It flew limply backwards like a rag doll and, for but a moment, appeared to hit an invisible wall. At that exact moment, there was a bright flash of vertical light behind the daemon, accompanied by a loud bang. The daemon vanished, apparently pulled backwards into the flash, and was gone. The old mage and his companion were once again alone on the road between the forest and the river.
Orūn stood there stroking his beard, staring at the spot where the daemon had disappeared. There was some evil design at work here old friend. That creature was one of the lesser daemons that reside in the lower planes. It is called a Shrietrok--a particularly vicious variety of daemon but rather powerless. The greatest threat to fear is the poison of its narrow, sharp teeth, which immobilizes its prey while keeping them conscious and allowing the blood to flow free. He walked over to his fallen steed and bent to examine it. You see there is something in their saliva that prevents the wound from clotting and healing properly, allowing them a steady supply of their victims blood, on which they feed, until the helpless being is bled dry. Greater daemons of the lower plains often keep them as slaves or pets, and use them to hunt prey as we use hounds. This is often of great value as...
Altarius tossed his head and rolled his eyes at the old wizard. <If you keep prattling on like that Old Mage we will still be standing here when the next arrives, should it have not been alone> Altarius mindspeech bore with it a hint of amusement that Orūn could not help but notice. <You will also have the honor of being named senile by all who hear you>.
The old mage gave him a reproachful look. It would not be as if it where the first time my four legged popinjay. Mayhap if some paid heed once in a moon, they would actually learn something, and I would not need to speak so oft. He smiled grimly, For example, Shrietroks most often hunt in packs of at least two or three in their natural environment. If there had been more to see they would have all set upon us at once with no delay. They seek to overwhelm and disable; they are wily creatures, adept at pack ambushes. That rules out the possibility that it came here on its own or by accident, and speaks to an alternative possibility; that the daemon was sent here with a purpose. There will surely be more attacks to come if I know the whether-to and why-for of things.
The only reply he received was a dignified mental shrug from his friend, and a feeling that the point was noted. Orūn knew Altarius had stored the information away against future need.
After a few silent moments, Altarius shared what he was pondering. <I was not aware that the men of the Seven Kingdoms had such lore and power over daemons that they could ensnare and dismiss one at will>.
And I was not aware that the Asterra held such knowledge of my people as to know the correct name of their old kingdom, a name that is never ues anymore, or to what bounds their abilities stretched, the old mage shot back with slight sarcasm and a sidelong look in Altarius direction. However, your observation is very astute, as most do not. I, however, had the unique advantage of being tutored by an archmage of an ancient lineage and supreme wisdom.
<I count myself extremely lucky then>, replied Altarius. <I wonder; shall I ever have the pleasure of meeting this ennobled individual?>
It is hard to say my friend. He left on his own errands long ago, called away as it were, before the disaster that befell the Seven Kingdoms. Whither he has gone I cannot say. Yet most of his people--if not all--are now vanished from this world. Though I might answer you it is unlikely, the future is draped in shadow, and no mortal man can perceive all ends.
<Well it appears you have lost your horse old man. I will only be able to travel at three quarters speed with you riding, but we do not really have a choice. Even with you as a burden, we can still make the port of Tuathear Caladh by nightfall--if I push hard. However, after that I will need a short respite before I can go on; our journey by ship should handle that nicely.>
They remained on their original course for Tuathear Caladh traveling through the wood. They kept themselves about a mile away from the road, hoping to avoid detection as well as further attacks. Yet, it would prove pointless to do so. Whoever, or whatever, wished to plague them continued toward whatever goal they had in mind.
They were attacked twice more as they traveled; each encounter was slightly more harrowing than the first. All the creatures were daemons, but all were within Orūns abilities to handle. Yet they began to lose time. By nightfall on the fourth day, they decided to shift their course more westward, then north. Though they would pass within a league of Tuathear Caladh to reach their new destination, they would not now make the port before nightfall anyway. Dusk was already settling around them. The citys gates closed, and barred, when it became too dark for the watch to see the white marker posts three hundred paces from the city walls. Therefore, Orūn decided to head for the safety and sanctuary of a place he knew well. He did not think it wise to be caught--at night--out on the open land surrounding the city.
They slept that night within the protection of an ancient stone ring erected by the lands original inhabitants, the Hanokimahi. Orūn reinforced the latent protections of the ring using powerful magics of his own devising. He made it so his defenses would awaken him at the slightest touch by anything other than local fauna. Yet that proved to be a needless precaution. There were no more attacks during the night and they slept peacefully.
Before dawn, they rose, and though they saw signs that something approached their camp at a distance, whatever it was had not attacked them. They found what appeared to be large dog or wolf tracks that were, burned apparently, into the leaves and soil. They could plainly read in the tracks left behind by these creatures that their encampment was watched, but they could not determine how many there had been. The continually crisscrossing paths left by the creatures confused the story they told.
They both caught an acrid scent neither could quite place; they both agreed that it was strongest in the areas around the tracks. They had the feeling that they should recognize this stench, but could not. They had a feeling that they were missing something important, but could not discern what it was. This worried them, yet they were determined and continued on, southward once more.
They traveled in peace for a very short time before they sprung a trap laid in their path; they had traveled for the time of only a quarter mark. This time, the old mage had some warning. As they passed between two trees along their path and entered a small glade, hair all over Orūns body began to stand on end. He began to scan the trees about them for the cause as Altarius slowed his pace.
<You felt that too?> thought Altarius.
Just then, Orūn saw what he had been looking for. He had shifted his vision to observe the Source energies about them when he spotted it. A thin lattice, made up of energy strands woven much like a spiders web, had been broken as they passed between the two trees. A thin strand of energy ran from that broken and swiftly fading pattern across the glad and into the trees on the other side. And that strand was swiftly receding. Within moments, Orūn realized what had happened and swiftly dismounted.
Be on your guard Altarius! He swiftly began to prepare himself for a conflict. A weave was set to let something loose. I fear this trap is similar to the first attacks we suffered. I did not feel the other ones because they were much smaller and set farther in advance. However, I believe this one was created recently and attached to something slightly different, and perhaps more powerful.
As he completed his thought, what appeared to be three overlarge wolves, native to the Northern Wastes, came bounding through the trees behind them. They had been tracking the pair from the time they had left their camp. As he and Altarius spun, Orūn reached out with his mind to speak to them. He found nothing but a cold, stark emptiness as if the animals did not exist. Something was not right. He could not touch their minds; they appeared to be overly aggressive and were still advancing. He waved his hand rather lazily at the largest of the trio, the one in the lead, sending it sailing through the air to smack into a tree. A sharp, wet snapping sound signaled the end of its life. The other two darted away from the first and began to circle around to either side of Orūn and Altarius, who had begun backing slowly across the meadow.
<Something is wrong Old Man,> Altarius warned him, <These Singing Brothers have no souls with which I can speak. They did not scatter when you felled the alpha, but instead they keep attacking. They bear the smell we could not place earlier. They smell of burning sulfur and leave smoking tracks. Does any of this sound familiar?>
Indeed. I believe they are Sha
He never finished, for at that moment the wolves suddenly leapt back in unison to where they had been when their leader was felled. Instinctively, Orūn looked over his shoulder. The brush on the far side of the glade, the side to which Altarius and he had been backing, exploded in a cacophony of snapping twigs and branches as another creature burst forward to engage them. The wolves seemed almost to smile as they bared their teeth, and rumbling growls escaped their throats with increased gusto.
Altarius continued to face down the remaining wolves as they began to advance anew. Orūn swung around to face the new threat, which he recognized to be a daemon. Orūn and Altarius knew each other well enough by now to act in concert without communicating. They began moving apart from each other in the center of the glade, to give each other room to work--so each could deal with their targets without being caught in the crossfire. The stag like Asterran had been his friend almost since the Aduine people had fled into this land. Further, Altarius was the leader of the Asterra herd local to the region. Orūn was therefore worried about the Asterrans safety, yet he knew that Altarius could take care of himself.
The daemon stood around seven foot tall with broad, well-muscled shoulders. A pair of horns protruded from its forehead, just inside a hairline that receded around them, and bent sharply backwards along the curve of its skull. They dipped down almost touching it, and then continued back into sharp, slightly upturned points above the back of its head. Its horns, size, lack of wings, flawless skin, and unnatural beauty (the impression that this was the most beautiful and perfect being in existence rolled off it in waves) identified it as a daemon of middling power to those who have been educated in the meaning of such things. Anyone else would see just another daemon.
Its eyes were devoid of color, being black and seeming as burning coals, and its hair was an unruly, jet-black mane of medium length; it was swept back from its face as if frozen in place after a stiff wind. Its skin was also black with narrow, intricately graven tattoos carved into, and graven across it in the deepest crimson. Flames flickered across the surface of its black skin, scorching the ground it walked on and anything that passed within a hand-span of it. All these things together made the being recognizable to Orūn as a Brakla; a malformed daemon from another realm. Its lack of piercings and other body modification--its tattoos notwithstanding--signaled that it was either extremely young, or of a low rank among its kind.
Its only article of clothing--a long, flowing sarong of a thick, exquisite cloth--appeared to be the only thing not burned on contact with those flames. It was all of one piece and made of a strange material Orun had never seen before. It began in a broad waistband that started above the daemons navel and extended to its hips. From there, it tapered downward in a broad, rectangular strip, front and back, and was open on the sides. It bore the colors and glyphs of the daemons skin. Orūn knew that this was the daemons natural appearance. He was also aware, however, that it could change itself to look like whatever humanoid race it wished to be. But in either form, these daemons always exuded their waves of mind-control--impressions of perfection and beauty.
Seeing the Asterran occupied by the soulless wolves, the daemon bore down on Orūn first; calmly walking forward, it began its assault by raising one long nailed finger. A small, glowing, red ball about the size of a marble appeared just above the tip of its clawed finger. It sped forward toward the old mage as the Brakla twitched his finger forward--in a grinning and mocking salute--and stopped scant feet short as it exploded in a roaring ball of fire. Thinking his prey soon finished, the Brakla charged forward.
However, the ball had struck an energy barrier Orūn had erected at the last second, and the flames roared around the barrier scorching the grass around him and setting some ablaze. The wizard left furrows in the ground with his feet from being pushed back about two feet, and his shield sputtered and seemed ready to give out. The weakening of Orūns shield attested to the sheer power behind the blast. The daemon skidded to a halt for a moment in amazement. Hatred boiled in its narrowed eyes as it growled and frothed in frustration, and started forward once more--now with more caution however.
It was hard for anyone to concentrate in the presence of such a daemon, even Orūn. Yet Orūn was stronger than most. With an iron will developed through many cycles of training, practice, and learning, he fought the almost overwhelming desire to bend knee and offer himself in adoration to the fell being. As a result, his sight began to darken slowly; his field of vision narrowing and making it seem that he was viewing everything through a window in some far-away, dark place. The daemons racial ability was far too great an advantage; he had to find a way to remove that advantage from the equation Though sweat beaded upon his brow, the struggle did not otherwise show on his face.
Fighting through the illusory emanations, Orūn struck back almost instantly. Relinquishing his failing protective shield, he collapsed it to the initial size of the daemons fireball. He raised the marble sized ball in the palm of his hand and as he fed it a vast amount of power, it changed in appearance and seemingly began to absorb light. He blew on it as one scatters ashes and it rushed forward to strike the oncoming daemon square in the chest. The tiny sphere grew in size to surround the daemon in a blotchy black and white sphere. As it engulfed the daemon, the sphere absorbed the dim light emanating from the otherworldly flames that rose off the Brakla and totally obscured it and the daemon alike. Crackling blue arcs of lightning-like energy laced this sphere of dark power as it began to shrink around the daemon.
The Brakla roared in pain as the sphere utterly collapsed and seemed to absorb directly into the daemons now twitching flesh. The Brakla dropped trembling to one knee and clutched its stomach as muscle spasms and pain ravaged its body. The old mage twisted in place, removed his water skin from the scrip on Altarius flanks with his mind, and called it over to him.
Orūn started in disbelief. As he was retrieving his water skin, he saw Altarius rearing, stamping and kicking at the fell wolves attacking him. The thing that startled him, however, was the appearance of the third wolf--the one he had felled--back on its feet and slinking toward Altarius flank while the others kept him occupied. How it had revived, he was not certain, but he knew he would have to finish his work with the daemon swiftly and hope to disable it at least temporarily. He knew also that he was outmatched in his present condition, and their only hope was to attempt something akin to what only a fool in minstrels tales would dare.
He jerked the stopper from the sheep-stomach lined container and spat it to the side. Removing a pinch of something that appeared to be powdered crystal, from one of the many pockets sewn into the inside of his robes, he hastily sprinkled it into the water within the skin as he swirled it and whispered something unintelligible. Pouring the water forth into the air, he spat a few hasty words and brought his now free hand--palm raised--up from his side in a clawing motion.
The water gushed forth, showering upwards as rain falling in reverse. It turned to a fine mist as it swirled high above the old mages head. The mist quickly formed seven long, lance-like icicles above him. Orūn completed the upward raking thrust with his hand, and in the same swift and fluid motion, he relaxed his fingers and rolled his hand over in a gentle pushing motion toward the Brakla.
As he spoke a final syllable, the icicles pivoted in the air slightly to pinpoint the daemon. They plunged earthward towards its still crouching form. However, just before the icicles impaled it, the Brakla lurched upright with a howl of rage, and seeing the spears of ice hurtling towards him, leapt back about five paces. The leading icicles smashed into the ground with a thump and remained there useless. Orūn made a deft twist of his wrist and the remaining icicles tracked the surprised daemon and plunged into one of its thighs, a shoulder, and its upper and mid torso. Four icicles had survived to burry themselves in the Brakla.
Still holding his raised hand outward, the old mage rolled it over once more, palm downward, and formed it into a clawing fist. He brought it downward in a sharp, stabbing motion. At this command, the icy lances proceeded to slam the daemon into the ground and transfix it in place. Orūn turned his hand back over, clenched fingers upwards, and flicked them swiftly open two times, opening his palm to the sky. The visible area of the icy lances suddenly sprouted wicked barbs, bent downwards toward the transfixed daemons body. The Brakla roared with mingled fear, rage, and pain--but no matter how it struggled, it could not remove itself from its temporary imprisonment.
It was obvious from its harsh screams that the barbs had sprouted down the entire length of these magical weapons. Yet the daemon could not break them, nor could he break free from their hold on him. These lances of ice, it seemed, were much stronger and more solid than naturally possible. As soon as the first of the icy lances had impacted, the controlling waves emanating from the daemon ceased, relieving Orūn of its overbearing burden and he nearly staggered with the release from the mental onslaught. The daemon required its energy for more important things now. Orūns vision returned slowly to normal.
This all transpired in a matter of moments, and in the next Orūn spun to aide his friend and companion. As Altarius gored one of the wolves with a lifting flick of his antlers, sending it sailing limply through the air, the old mage removed a small, rune engraved stone from yet another of his hidden pockets. With a mental shout to Altarius, he flung the stone; Altarius leapt swiftly out of the way. As he did so, the wolves seemed to sense his move and lunged for him, all at once, in an attempt to take him before he could do so. The stone landed in the midst of the ravening wolves instead, right were the Asterran had been. Orūn crouched down and turned his head. As the stone struck the ground there was an extremely bright flash and a roaring clap as of thunder. The wolves were knocked down, rolling backwards several feet, and as they scrabbled clumsily back onto their paws, it was obvious they were dazed and blinded. They shook themselves vigorously as if trying to shake water from their coats, stumbling in the process.
Orūn cast a thought at Altarius in desperation. <Even considering the difficulties of late with Gate travel, we must try or we are surely lost old friend. Besides, the way your kind create a Gate should make it fairly immune to such problems. If we work together as a team, we might have a chance. If I form the Gate, when we step through, I will be drained and unable to function for a few moments. However, if you would form the Gate for me, I will have the strength left to enact spells to our benefit. But you must form the Gate so that it appears as one of my creation, not yours. I know the place better, but I should be able to send a sufficient imprint from my mind to yours>. They both knew it would be stressful on Altarius and leave him defenseless on the other side, yet Altarius knew the old mage. He knew he had to trust him as he always had up to that point, and the wolves seemed to be temporarily incapacitated for the moment.
Orūn passed one more thought to the startled Asterran. <I have a plan and this may be the only chance we have to try! Quickly, while they both are down!>
Orūn sent the imprint to Alterius. <I have it! I agree with you old man. I would rather perish in a Gate unraveled by the instabilities than at the maws and claws of these fiends. I am not sure of my own abilities in this matter, yet I am sure I can make its appearance like the Gates you can fashion. Let us begin.>
The old mage turned and started mumbling almost immediately, his finger waggling seeming never to cease for a moment as he strode swiftly through the trees back the way they had come. He drew in Source energies from the world around him and built them up within himself. He did not divert it or use it, he simply held it to give weight to the illusion he was trying to create. Since Altarius could create a type of Gate as a natural ability of his kind, there would be no build up of the Source within him; there would also be only minimal risk of the Gate collapsing due to the instabilities since it was more of a subspace path than a Gate. Orūn hoped that the Brakla would see the build-up within him, as well as the motions of his hands, and assume he, not Altarius, had wrought the Gate. Orūn wanted the Brakla to think him weakened and easy for the daemon to dispose of on the other side.
On the edge of the glade, between the very pair of trees that had triggered this fourth attack, a shimmering wall of light began to appear. As it formed, the center became translucent, that translucence spreading outward to the boundaries of the Gate; the image of a glade lit with early morning sunlight and glistening dew appeared. It was a place farther away in the forest. This glade was one the wizard knew well, for he planned to use it as one of his regular Gate locations when the instabilities subsided, if they ever did completely. As he and Altarius stepped through the Gate, they turned to make their stand.
The Brakla had finally overcome the immobilizing pain of the icicles that pinned it in place. Its body had healed itself naturally and regenerated around the barbed lances; just enough to give it the strength it needed to break free. The low flames covering its body no longer faltered. Instead, they grew stronger and brighter, burning surrounding grasses and low shrubs around it for a couple paces. The crystalline spears began to fail and it heaved itself upward with incredible effort. It wrenched the remnants of the offending icy spikes from its body and strode forth, spewing filth as it came.
I shall have your heart for that wizard, it growled with contempt across the expanse and through the portal. No mere mortal should presume that they can best me, even momentarily, and live to speak of it!
Once the magic-formed weapons were removed from its flesh, the daemon raised its arms upwards, seized the energy holding the Gate at Altarius command, and wrenched their control away from him. The daemon smiled at Orūn. Ill not have you collapsing the portal on me as I step through it. That would just be silly of me. Do not look so surprised wizard; I know your thoughts. It misread the mental link between Orūn and Altarius however, mistaking it for something stronger, more substantial. Just as I know you are bound to that four legged popinjay at your side. Fear not; I will wrest that bond from you and break it, desecrating the flesh of your companion in horrific ways you dare not imagine. I shall crack and feast on the horned beasts bones, while it still lives, ere making you suffer and die!
It did not seem to notice or take heed of the wizards continued mage-craft in its arrogance and anger; it continued to walk swiftly toward the open portal. If it had noticed, it may have changed its course of action, saving its life. Yet it strode onwards in ignorance. As it reached the portals threshold and began to step through, Orūn went suddenly still and silent, completing the final components of a chain of spells he had been preparing for this event. He had worried he would not have the necessary time he needed to complete his castings. However, he had prevailed, just in time, and he now stood back to see if his plan would work.
Come swiftly to your own destruction then, O Prince of Flowery Speeches, Orūn replied with a smile. If you already have me so in your thrall, ye need not court me with the gentle words of thy silvery tongue.
The insulted daemon roared its rage as it stepped across the threshold. The vines climbing up the trees--the trees that formed the gateway for the portal Altarius had created--lanced out to rap around the daemon in those places that had already made it through the portal. They held the daemon in place and did not allow it to pass through the rest of the way. In the next instant, the wood of one of the trees began to show severe signs of age, deterioration, and rot. Suddenly, lightning leapt from the clear sky above to smash directly into the trunk of this same tree, right at the midpoint of the portal.
There was a sharp crack as the tree shuddered. Splintered in half by the strike, the tree came crashing down and away from its position as the right support of the portal just as the daemons flames began to consume the vines holding it. The daemon had been on the verge of escaping their twisting, vise-like grip. Orūn exhaled the breath he had not known he had held. It had been a narrow escape.
Orūn, knowing what would happen hastily raised a shield of force in front of Altarius and himself against what was coming. He had no choice but to pool almost all of its strength toward the failing Gate, instead of making an evenly strengthened bubble-like shell as he normally would. He knew the destructive force about to be unleashed. With no framing threshold to keep the portal in place, the Gate collapsed in a brilliant flash of light blinding Orūn and Altarius alike. Though the shield of force he had raised had protected them, it collapsed immediately after. If the shield had failed--if it had not held long enough against that initial stroke of raw power--the blast would have utterly obliterated them; the trees on the perimeter of the glade, and for several paces beyond, flash-burned so hot and so fast that they disintegrated. The trees for several paces beyond were burned to the point of charring.
The sheer force of the blast against the outer surface of the shield had collapsed it, but Orūn somehow managed to raise a second shield in the few seconds between the energy blast and the shockwave that followed. In the short time it took him to raise this second shield, the pair sustained second degree burns over much of their bodies due to the ambient heat still present from the blast. But the second shield protected the pair; they were saved from being crushed to death by the sudden increased atmospheric pressure caused by the shockwave. And yet it still hurled them some thirty-odd paces away from their position at the center of the glade.
The pair might have flown farther still, had they not crashed into the burning trees beyond the perimeter of the glade, those that had not been obliterated by the energy fireball. They glanced from one to another like a stone skipping across water. The trees they glanced off, and slammed into, were blasted back in turn--in but the blink of an eye--by the same shockwave that carried them. Luckily, as they reached a point twelve paces beyond the perimeter of the glade--mere seconds later--the returning wave struck them, knocking them back towards the glade nine paces. All of these factors worked to lessen the distance they themselves covered. Somehow, the battered pair had avoided being crushed by the bulk of the blasted trees and where only pinned beneath the extraneous branches and limbs. Even so, the still became trapped and pinned beneath the extraneous bits as the whole of the tangled and burning mess came crashing to the ground with such force that Altarius and Orūn blacked out.
When they regained consciousness and could see again, they worked their way out of the still smoldering, fallen trees in which they found themselves entangled. Slowly, they became aware that the old mages gambit had paid off. Though heavily bruised, scraped, and bloodied, they were still intact. Surprisingly, they had not sustained any broken bones or other serious damage. They still almost died however; the burns over most of their bodies threw them both into shock, and they fell to the ground. Before he blacked out once more, however, Orūn used healing energies on himself enough to remain conscious, turning his attention then to Altarius. Eventually, the pair recovered enough to regain their feet.
Where the portal had been lay a shallow crater. The Brakla had made it only partially through the portals threshold when the tree Orūn targeted had collapsed, taking the Gate down with it. The blast had vaporized what was left of the foul being. The earth of the crater had been burned so hot that several inches of black ash lay at the bottom of the crater. The trees that the Gate had been formed between, trees that been green and full--twin giants that had been so beautiful in life--were now no more than a memory. All that remained were ragged fragments, small pieces of heavily charred wood scattered about. The acrid smell of burning wood, combined with the noxious fumes that were a byproduct of the blast, burned their noses as they returned to the center of the glade; tears welled in their eyes. As they stood at the bottom of the bowl the blast had created, they had no words to speak; their throats were too dry from the fumes and the choking emotions that welled within them. Though they had survived, they had wrought utter devastation upon the forest.
The tall wildflower strewn grasses that had grown in the glade were no more. They had been replaced by this shallow crater of charred earth in a roughly circular pattern eighteen paces in diameter. The entirety of what had been the glade was now gone, replaced by the crater. Wisps of smoke still rose from the ruined ground, the wind blowing them around playfully. The devastation dismayed Orūn; he had not been left with any alternative, yet he wished he could have found one. And though he tried to block out the unique senses that were part of his innate connection to the earth, he could not do so. The area in the immediate vicinity of the initial blast was silent and devoid of life energies. He simply sensed nothing, or rather, sensed the absence of what should have been there. But the agony of the area beyond rolled over him in waves. It would be a very long time before anything grew here again.
The force of the blast, they knew, had also destroyed the glades perimeter of trees, and the trees beyond had been burned and knocked down--outwards and away from the glade. As Altarius and Orūn turned to view the extent of the destruction, the horrible truth of it greeted them. The trees that had been burned and still smoldered, and the trees beyond, lay in a flattened, intertwined jumble in every direction from the center of the blast. The trees at the farthest extent of this destruction leaned heavily against or were entwined in the otherwise unaffected trees beyond. Thankfully, the trees had acted as a wall, slowing the shockwave and shielding the woods beyond from the terrible blast, effectively cutting it in half. Normally, such destructive force would have carried much farther, affecting an area of a mile in all directions. And if that had happened, the devastation would have been immeasurable.
The locations of the two simultaneous blasts, from the two ends of the Gate collapsing, had occurred a mile apart. If the trees had not slowed the destructive energies, the two blasts would have collided. When two blasts of that type, and of such force, are close enough to contact each other, the secondary explosion of the waves striking and rebounding off one another could have created a blast twenty-five times greater. Such a blast and ensuing shockwave would have destroyed everything within six square miles--four thousand acres of woodland. The two companions feared what would have happened to them under those circumstances, but Orūn knew the truth. Orūn had never witnessed the destruction of a Gates collapse in such a manner, but he had been taught the principles of such things. He had grossly miscalculated the extent of the destruction. If the trees had not stopped the blasts from colliding, he and Altarius would not have survived
The two companions surveyed the damage; in total, the devastation covered a roughly circular area for over a quarter mile in all directions. Some one hundred sixty odd acres of woodland that had been vibrant and full of life now lay in ruins--snuffed out in an instant. Hundreds of trees--though they had been green--now lay flattened and smoldering, charred, in a flash, to their very cores. The friction caused by the moving energy of the blast had been that hot. Thousands more, which had been green and lush, now lay toppled and strewn in the area of devastation. The two companions were thankful they had survived, but were demoralized by the cost.
Orūn realized that they did not have time for him to repair what damage he could to the area, but he was determined that if he survived this ordeal he would return. He did not know what he alone would be able to do for the land in which such devastation had occurred. The damage would have been the same on the other end of the Gate; what had happened here would also have happened there when the Gate collapsed. He hoped beyond reason that he would be able to mend the broken land.
Orūn dusted his hands off as he gave one final look around the wasted glade and forest beyond. We must leave the straight path we are on and cleave to a more crooked one, putting off our dalliances for the day in favor of heading for the safety of my tower.
Altarius chuckled dryly and looked at Orūn angrily. <Only you would think an attack on ones friends and ones own life a days dalliance; not to mention the desecration of many acres of woodlands in two different locations>. Sarcasm exuded from the Asterrans mind-voice.
Orūn frowned at his friend. Do you honestly think I would not have avoided all this if I could? I had not the strength left to deal with this daemon head on in pitched battle; he likely would match me if I had half of my strength. And I only had a fraction of that left in my weary body. I would have given anything for a different solution! I miscalculated the extent of the damage that would be caused by such a blast, having never witnessed the occurrence firsthand. But what choice did I have? These attacks by foul beasts are getting tiresome. Someone sent them here for a purpose I can only guess at, but when I discover who it was that orchestrated this whole affair; believe me I will deal with them swiftly!
Altarius had never seen the old mage angry. Perturbed, maybe vexed perhaps, but never angry. He could almost feel sorry for the individual who was on the receiving end of that power, almost. Until he remembered the past couple days worth of increasingly aggressive attacks that is, and the destruction this last had brought about. He knew Orūn would use every resource and all the power he possessed, both of which were vastly formidable, to see justice meted out on whoever was responsible for the damage caused. Yet he was still taken aback by his friends vehemence.
Orūn seemed to relax a bit and come back to himself. But yes, in my younger days dalliances were much younger and prettier than they are now, Orūn replied with a wink. You are not to be held at fault for your observations old friend; I have a habit of making light of situations to set others at ease.
Besides, in case you did not notice through the Gate before it collapsed, those foul wolf beasts were beginning to shake off the affects of that strokestone to which I treated them. They had been moving away from the Gate and were nowhere near to the center of the destructive blast. If their resurrection, when slain in any normal fashion, is any indication of their nature, they will surely have survived. We two are not as resilient. Moreover, if they are anything like their nature-made likenesses, they will soon begin to track us. We did not go very far at all with that Gate. I feared what might happen, given the current unreliability of the Gates and your own uncertainty of your Gifts functionality, and thus made it a step of only a few miles.
Altarius nodded grimly and started off at a trot as soon as Orūn had alighted. They traveled swiftly, not concerning themselves too much with hiding their trail. They saw no sign yet of the unnatural wolves that tracked them. However, they knew that they were somewhere behind, and most likely closing the distance. The chase was on. They began traveling west bearing slightly toward the north for about two miles then turned sharply to the north bearing slightly toward the west for another two miles, until they came to Fawns Spring; a total journey of five and one half miles.
Fawns Spring, as its name implied, was a small spring located in the woods with a small shelter for hunters and woodsman located nearby. Orūn set an illusion there for the creatures that tracked them after making sure no huntsman currently occupied the shelter. It was a false trail, telling a false tale. It would appear to the wolves that they had turned sharply to the east when in fact they went the other way. Turning toward the west instead, the beleaguered pair began using their woodland skills and magic to hide their true path, covering or wiping out the signs of their passage. Orūn was dismounted and leading, Altarius watching their back trail. They followed a randomly shifting pattern, frequently back trailing and looping to cross their own paths.
They spent a few marks traveling through the dense forest, yet it was slow work since they had to hide the traces of their path. They still made good time however, and covered around fourteen miles when Orūn made a decision. Remounting Altarius, they veered sharply off their course, turning northward for about two miles. They made no further attempts at covering or concealing their back-trail; they had more need of haste. Yet still they were forced to follow a wandering course in their search for a small creek. This creek, once found, would give them the bearings they needed find the place they wished to go.
Orūn, Altarius knew, wanted to reach the location of a hidden node, about a half mile from a small run in the creek. Orūn and Altarius had long ago stumbled across the node while wandering through this region of forest; they had been searching for a lake Orūn had known was in the area when they sensed it. The energies of the world, of the Source, did not readily pool and collect to form nodes naturally; however, this place was one such. Orūn wanted to reach it as quickly as possible, for somehow, even with all their efforts, the unnatural wolves had managed to track them at great speed. Howls could be heard in the distance from different directions, but always behind them. However, the howls were getting closer; the beasts were closing the distance.
Orūn detected the presence of the fell wolves as he reached out with his natural tie to the land. He sensed that the creatures of the wood were afraid, and were scattering away from something horrible and unnatural a few miles down their back trail, and Altarius sensed it as well. That the fell wolves had caught up with them, there could be no mistake. They would have to make a stand. Thankfully, minutes later, they found the location where the node had formed.
With the knowledge he had gained from their previous encounter, Orūn feared the wolves would not be easy to dispatch. He surmised that they, like the Brakla, were most likely hell-spawn themselves. Thus the reason he had come to a place where he could draw on the raw power of the earth; he might need it in the battle ahead. The fight with the Brakla had drained his reserves immensely. Tapping the Node, he would not only have a vast supply of power available, but he might also be able to recharge his reserves in the process--faster than normal anyway.
Once these beasts caught them up, everything Orūn and Altarius tried to fend them off failed. They seemed almost impervious to harm. Any damage inflicted they quickly shrugged off; even if it appeared the wolves were defeated or slain, it soon proved otherwise. Even though they had no trouble dispatching all three at the same time, the wolves would rise again. Even burning them while they were down seemed to have no noticeable effect; after a while, the flames simply went out as the wolves began to regenerate.
Eventually, Orūn drew upon the power of the node and blasted the fell beasts to ash with streams of raw, unwoven power. Channeling that much raw power through his body strained him physically, weakening him even further. Yet he had little choice; the little magic remained to him, along with everything else they had tried, had not worked. This time, however, he met with success. As the blast of pure energy plowed into the beasts, it seemed to surround them and pass through them at the same time. They seemed to loose consistency for a moment, like an image being viewed through the imperfect glass of the era. When they appeared to coalesce once more, they stood as they had when struck, though now they were statues made of tightly packed ash. These were tenacious creatures indeed to hold their form, even to the end of such utter destruction.
Orūn then proceeded to call up a miniature cyclone of wind. He directed the cyclone to crash into the ashen forms and shattered them, collecting the remains of the creatures, and sent it off. The ash was then scattered over an area of several miles so it could not possibly pollute the area. This time, the evil within the wolf-things, though seemingly limitless, did not seem able to reconstitute them.
Orūn was extremely weary. As Altarius and he sank to the ground to rest, he began to think that the attacks themselves were meaningless and that the real purpose must be to wear him down. It was possible that someone or something wanted to force him use his magic to a point that he became so fatigued that he could not draw any more from the Source, or defend himself in any manner. Their unknown assailant must know that even Orūn was not foolish enough to Gate far enough to reach the safety of his tower with the current instabilities within the Source. Even as he pondered this, night began to fall, and he still had no clue, no sign, of their true adversary.
They rested there that night, and the next day, at the site of the node. Orūn was too weak to travel farther without rest; the strain he had undergone to destroy their pursuers, and the daemon before, had drained him immensely. Nor could he provide any protection in the way of magical wards, so Altarius kept the watch as he slept. When he awoke, the node had replenished his ability to use magic enough that he could set wards. They both proceeded to sleep peacefully after that.
As dusk fell on their seventh day of travel, they headed northwesterly and covered the remaining six miles to the Hanokimahi River, but not before the fullness of night fell across the land. Once there, they began following the river north. They would have to cover around six miles to reach Orūns tower. Shortly after reaching the river however, they picked up more unwanted traveling companions.
The Asterran had excellent vision even at night, so Orūn urged Altarius to make way, without stopping to rest, and with all possible haste.
Now, the dawn had come and passed into morning and they only had another wearying mile to go. They had spent the night doggedly avoiding their relentless pursuers, and had therefore covered very little ground in their journey to the tower. Every time they thought they had given the creatures that chased them the slip, they would be cut off once more from the north, blocking them from continuing onward. The little they had seen of the creatures as they hunted the two friends gave Orūn the impression of miniature dragons crossed with creatures known as lions to those who lived in the far distant southwest.
Finally, they were able to slip past their stalkers and continue north sometime in the predawn of the eighth day. They traveled swiftly as Altarius could run. At last, they would soon be within sight of the protective tower walls Orūn called home. Within the citadel he had created, the weakened and tired wizard might have a chance. Perhaps there was some magic there the old mage had squirreled away that would aide him in defeating this unseen enemy. Of this, Altarius was uncertain.
As if reading his mind, the Old Mage shouted to Altarius. We are almost there old friend. When we reach the outer walls, we shall part company. I will spring forth from thee and make my way cautiously to the tower. Get thee hence to the border garrison at Breost, down the river to the south, and inform them of what has befallen. You will have to run hard to shake loose those who stalk us and arrive there safely. Yet I can sense that you have enough strength left to do that at least. In the event I fall asleep waiting here for some doom to befall me, someone will know to come wake me up.
Orūns unspoken thoughts reverberated in Altarius mind; though there was no more he could do, no other course he could take. Orūn was worried about his companion and student, Raisce, and was worried also about losing Altarius. Raisce he thought of as a son, Alterius was a true and trusted friend. The old mage thought that if he sent Altarius for help, he would be giving the Asterran something truly useful to do while keeping him safely out of harms way. He hoped that the creatures that pursued them would not be able to catch him before he reached the river garrison, and without Orūn encumbering him, he would be able to travel much more swiftly. Altarius could do nothing to dissuade the old mage and knew it. Even had he not been bone weary, he could not have brought himself to argue with his dear friend. The man was determined, and he had a will of adamantine. Orūn would rain destruction down on those responsible, even if that meant bringing himself to harm. Altarius knew the old mage did not want him to be caught up in that.
Altarius was exhausted and he new it. Only the use of the last of Orūns spells had kept him going this long. Soon he would be too tired to do anything but sleep, and when that happened he would likely sleep for days. Such was the price of the magic Orūn had used to keep him going; it could help sustain him, but the wear and fatigue on his body would be the same, even if he did not feel it. The best thing he could do for the old mage was to get to the nearest outpost and summon help as quickly as possible. If he proved too late to save the old man, the wizard would want the Guardian of Demesnemer to be informed of the events of the past few days, the fate of Orūn, and the possibility of a significant threat to the kingdom of Demesnemer.
They crashed through the remaining trees and brush in an explosion of flying twigs and branches. They had finally broken through from the confines of the wood into the open expanse of rolling fields that lay between themselves and the tower. The open ground spread out in a slow, upward, rolling slope until it converged to form several low hills off in the distance. One of those hills was a little different from the rest. It was a little odd hill rising above the others off to one side. However, one would not have been able to tell what it was that seemed wrong with it without getting closer.
Upon the flat crown of this hill sat a wide, squat tower standing over one hundred sixty feet in height and overlooking the whole of the land for many miles. Around the tower sat a couple outbuildings; consisting of the entrance to the guest lodgings in the western wall of the tower, the apprentices hut, a smaller multi-purpose tower, and a small, barn-like structure used mostly for storage. The entrance Orūn planned to use to access the tower was virtually invisible from this distance, even though they faced it. Very few knew of its existence, and for those who did not, it would be nigh impossible to find. It was difficult for those who possessed the knowledge. It lay, in fact, at the base of this odd little hill and opened directly into it. It was impossible to tell it apart from the rest of the hill unless you knew what to look for.
On the far side of the huge rolling meadow, along the edge of the northwestern tree line, ran the a stream Orūn had named, The Fishing Creek a narrow and swift moving little stream which ran into a small lake, feeding it, then passing off into the forest. From there it traveled roughly a mile southwest in a meandering coarse through the wood until it fed into the Hanokimahi River. Orūns tower was situated so that it was within three hundred paces of the stream so that he could divert a small amount for his needs via an underground aqueduct.
As the pair rode hard into the meadow, the first thing they noticed was that though their pursuers had been close on their trail, they had not followed them out into the open. They stopped for a moment at a safe distance from the forest, and turned to look wonderingly. There were no signs of movement, no trace--anywhere--of the creatures that had stalked them. Orūn reached out through the connection he had to the land and sensed nothing. There was no sign that anything had ever been behind them.
As they turned and continued across the field, Orūn checked his first set of wards and discovered they were undisturbed and whole. He noted that all security measures he had devised and put in place over the cycles where apparently intact and unmolested as he progressed closer to his tower and its outbuildings. His pace slowed and his eyes narrowed as a sudden, intuitive thought came upon him.
The outer wall was actually a low-lying granite wall four feet high and around two feet thick. Orūn had raised it mainly to mark the boundaries of his personal grounds and the outermost limits of its defenses. Upon reaching this predetermined point, the Old Mage grasped his saddlebags and leapt from the back of Altarius to alight with unnatural grace upon the wall. He spun for a moment to watch as his friend turned to run southwest, leaping across the stream; it was very apparent how weary the Asterran was. Orūn then turned his back to the retreating Asterran, and the danger in the woods alike. He hoisted his saddlebags up onto his shoulder, and dropped down from the wall. Looking over the grounds thoughtfully as he went, he began the short stroll toward the hidden entrance on the south side of his tower.
* * * *
|Invincible Interludes - Undying Love||Prolog Part 1 - Shattering of Heroes|
|Invincible Resurrection - Paths Reforged||Prolog Part 3 - Old Plots, New Beginnings|
|Invincible Resurrection - Path of Honor (part 2)|